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Fair Housing: Talking Past Each Other About Cities and Segregation

Martha Bridegam on
Aug 30, 2015

About 80 years too late, the federal government has put real regulatory authority behind the duty of publicly funded agencies to "affirmatively further fair housing". It's being discussed as a genuine chance to desegregate the suburbs. 

On July 8 the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued its final rule on "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" (AFFH). Under the rule, state and local agencies receiving HUD funds must now do more than passively study barriers to fair housing: they must also make and follow genuine plans to reduce the barriers they describe.

The new HUD rule was backed -- arguably, was made possible -- by the U.S. Supreme Court's unexpectedly liberal ruling of June 25 in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. The high court upheld a claim of disparate-impact discrimination against the Texas agency that allocates low-income housing tax credits (LIHTC). In the court's words, the group bringing the claim "alleged the Department has caused continued segregated housing patterns by its disproportionate allocation of the tax credits, granting too many credits for housing in predominantly black inner-city areas and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods." 

A lot of public commentary on these good changes, though well meant, is working from a dated model of what suburbs and cities are like. Some serious urban policy writers are talking about suburban desegregation as if it were the only fair housing goal. Meanwhile, there are separate conversations going about urban gentrification and displacement. Really the two issues belong together. 

Disadvantaged people are caught in a pincer between old-fashioned suburban snobbery and new urban pricing-out. They are running out of places to go between the two. That's what unites this summer's terrible headlines about homelessness in rich downtowns and about police violence in segregated inner suburbs. That's why fair housing has to mean both urban affordability and suburban diversity.

Recently Kriston Capps wrote for CityLab that the kinds of conflict in the HBO series Show Me A Hero are now appearing "in every city in America". The show depicts a conflict in 1987 suburban Yonkers in which the rhetoric of invasion and "social engineering" was used against low-income housing in Westchester County's largest city. 

Certainly that kind of conflict is happening in a lot of cities and suburbs, as the long U.S. history of residential segregation is contested. Suburbs were intended from the start as enclaves of racial, economic and social exclusivity. The archetypal suburb of Levittown was whites-only. Many suburbs remained so until the 1948 case of Shelley v. Kraemer banned racially restrictive covenants on property deeds. Unofficial exclusion continued. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute recently wrote that segregation is now worse than in 1968 and that recent conflicts in Baltimore and Ferguson are among its consequences. 

But suburban desegregation battles are not the only type of conflict over housing justice. The current U.S. housing picture has a new aspect that didn't exist in the 1980s. Investment is returning to inner cities in a tidal reversal of 1960s "white flight". Alan Ehrenhalt calls it the "Great Inversion".

Westchester County has remained exclusive and excluding since the time depicted in Show Me a Hero, but New York City was not then as exclusive as it is now. That difference changes the relationship between suburb and city. Likewise in California, think of pairings like Marin County and San Francisco, or the tonier Westside versus central L.A., or the house-divided demographics of rich, poor and transitioning neighborhoods in Oakland and Berkeley.

This is why conversations about the hopeful new developments in federal desegregation policy are incomplete if they focus only on integrating the suburbs.

The Good News on Federal Desegregation Efforts

An early analysis of the new HUD rule by the deeply experienced National Low-Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC) found a lot to welcome. It said the newly required Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) would push local agencies to analyze barriers to fair housing using HUD-provided data, to include public participation, and to apply well-articulated definitions of "fair housing issues". The agencies must then use their AFH reports to make plans for improvement that must form part of ongoing Consolidated Plans and housing authorities' five-year plans. 

By contrast, it said the previous "Analysis of Impediments" requirement was so flimsy that "a classic abuse on the part of some jurisdictions was to assert that they were taking actions to overcome impediments to fair housing by placing fair housing posters around public places during Fair Housing Month." 

Some housing experts felt the Supreme Court's ruling reflected the more conservative influence of the court's swing voter, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in setting a relatively difficult standard for proof of disparate impact. But it is still cause for celebration in the long battle to desegregate rich Dallas-area neighborhoods by race and income. 

A further step toward accountable public spending on housing appeared this summer: the U. S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that Congress allow HUD to share administration of the LIHTC program with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Since housing tax credits were at the core of the Texas fair housing case, this is an area where a more direct HUD role would help fair housing enforcement and might allow more public scrutiny of tax credit compliance processes.

The fair housing task won't be easy, especially when it comes to persuading private landlords to accept Section 8 housing vouchers. But HUD is already trying. A recently issued new rule clarifying portability of Section 8 housing vouchers requires "that all families be provided an explanation of potential housing opportunities in areas with low concentration of low-income families, not just housing in high-poverty census tracts."

The new HUD rule drives strongly enough toward justice that it has been taking mean overheated flak from the right since it was first proposed. Columnist Joy Overbeck's contribution on the "Town Hall" site, "Invasion of the City Dwellers: Coming to Your Neighborhood," is an example. The new rules, she argued, would eviscerate local land use controls, "importing low-income city-dwellers into your community," expressing "naked class envy" and seeking "to turn the suburbs left" with "a new invasion of Democrat voters among them the low income, no income, welfare-dependent, gang members, homeless, and illegal immigrants". 

In other words, the rules are ambitious enough to make bigots nervous, and they might genuinely help poor families.

Certainly many poor families have good reasons to move to richer neighborhoods and not enough chances to do so.

Many writers this summer cited Harvard economists Raj Chetty (who has now moved to Stanford), Nathaniel Hendren and Lawrence Katz for their findings of greater economic success among the children of families brought by the Moving to Opportunity program to what the authors bluntly called "better neighborhoods".

Barbara Sard of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities wrote in a 2013 comment on the HUD rule at its proposal stage that the great majority of people receiving federal housing assistance do live in areas of concentrated poverty and "only 12 percent of black and 10 percent of Hispanic households used their vouchers to live in predominantly white neighborhoods" -- an "extreme result... unlikely to be the product of families' informed choices."

The Great Inversion

Because of the Great Inversion, though, informed choices need to include the right to keep one's housing even when local land sale prices rise, as well as the right to move to other places that present better opportunities.

A few popular coastal cities, once dreaded by suburbanites as places of crime and deviance, have lately become the most attractive places to find high-paying jobs, rich resources and convenient public services. Inevitably those attractions have created overwhelming demand for middle-class housing.

The resulting affordability crisis is forcing out existing neighbors who are often low-income people of color. Those vulnerable people who manage to remain end up living as hunkered-down barnacles to keep their irreplaceable current housing. In places like San Francisco's Bayview and Mission Districts, in my own South of Market neighborhood, in Palo Alto's last mobile home park, or in West Oakland, preserving a tenancy or house title can be a fair housing victory -- because if a low-income resident has to move, it will likely be to a poorer, more segregated suburb. 

Last year's Causa Justa/Just Cause gentrification report gave a vivid account of displacement from Oakland and San Francisco, including "historically disinvested areas." It described neighborhoods becoming "wealthier and whiter," rents screaming upward, African American and Latino populations declining and losing homeownership. 

And it's not over. The new Urban Displacement Project by UC Berkeley's Miriam Zuk and Karen Chapple reports data showing dire existing displacements and also provides "early warning" of more neighborhoods where signs have appeared that vulnerable residents will soon be driven out.

Sadly it's the people now facing displacement who held cities together during the long years of disinvestment. In what Jane Jacobs called "un-slumming," neighbors struggled to preserve community in downtown slums and in redlined, segregated single-family residential districts. Against odds, they founded nonprofits and businesses, tended gardens, created public art, saved old buildings from condemnation, tamed redevelopment agencies, cared for each other. Friends and neighbors literally nursed each other through the opening urban AIDS crisis. Neighbors supporting neighbors created the walkable, livable neighborhoods that investors now value.

A Double Problem, and More Than One Answer

Disadvantaged people are now trapped in the pincer: between gentrifying cities and excluding suburbs. No wonder the demographic reports say "concentrated poverty" has worsened in certain inner suburbs: the displacement destinations are shrinking.

Brookings Institution researcher Elizabeth Kneebone reported last year that as of 2012, more U.S. people lived below the federal poverty line in suburbs than in "big cities or rural communities," while from 2008 to 2012, "suburban communities experienced the fastest pace of growth in the number of poor residents living in concentrated poverty over this time period." Ferguson, Missouri is a suburb.

So a real fair housing policy has to push back at both sides of the pincer.

Dispersal to the suburbs isn't the only way to fight segregation, and for several reasons it shouldn't be.

Moving doesn't help everyone. A one-way move from a center-city housing project to an "area of opportunity" in a still-prosperous suburb might be a grand, life-expanding possibility for a family of modestly employed, car-owning parents and their school-age children. The same choice might mean anomic hell for an urban retiree who hasn't driven a car in years and who depends for health, safety and home care on a support network of existing neighbors. 

Another concern is how HUD's attempt to help disadvantaged people share the good life might interact with the urban-suburban population exchange. What if the resources and private investment that secure the good life are slipping out from under an apparently prosperous suburb just as hopeful new residents arrive from the city to claim their fair share?

There's also the risk of uncritically reviving the "melting pot" idea. In a sense the doctrine of "moving to opportunity" recalls the victim-blaming 1960s "culture of poverty" doctrine. Look farther back and you find mid-century notions of coerced assimilation as benevolence, as in the case of the notorious Dillon Myer, who pressed formerly incarcerated Japanese Americans and Native Americans from reservations to disperse in the cities.

On the urban affordability side, standard prescriptions include calls for generically increasing housing supply; creating incentives to build and maintain affordable units; cushioning existing neighbors against immiseration and expulsion; rehousing people in or near homelessness; palliating homelessness.

That talk overlaps the fair housing conversations on subjects like increasing the density of practically usable and affordable housing ("supply" is an odd word considering the millions of rotting foreclosures). Likewise it overlaps in discussing the segregating effects of exclusive suburban zoning -- and disputing, endlessly, whether urban market-rate construction raises or lowers affordability.

The overlap isn't very strong, though. If more people were talking about urban displacement and suburban exclusion at the same time, they might find more ways of addressing both at once. 

For example, there hasn't been much talk yet about applying the "affirmatively furthering fair housing" toolbox in the urban affordability crisis. The new AFH requirement is carefully characterized as a planning tool but it is intended in part for fair housing agencies that already have enforcement authority. Could those address private evictions and foreclosures that have disparate impacts on disadvantaged people? When publicly funded programs reconfigure urban subsidized or public housing, is it a fair housing issue if they reduce the number of subsidized units or the depth of the subsidies? At least should administrators of housing programs be scrutinizing evictions from their subsidized units for signs of illegal discrimination, including with respect to disability?

HUD Officials Understand, But What Will They Do?

The record of public comments and HUD responses on the AFFH final rule shows many affordable housing advocates and HUD staff were seeing the housing picture whole: old-fashioned suburban snobbery, new urban pricing-out, and excluded populations caught between the two. 

The exchange was uneasy although knowledgable. For example, Executive Director Alan Greenlee of the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing asked in his 2013 comment for the AFFH rule to "accommodate ... programmatic activity that seeks to change the nature of low-income communities through investment instead of encouraging the movement of residents to other communities. In addition, the rule does not seem to adequately safeguard historically low-income communities from the adverse impacts of gentrification. As communities begin to change, it is important to safeguard the financial interests of current residents who would prefer to stay in their communities."

HUD's discussion of comments in its final rule acknowledged and responded to concerns about policy language that emphasized mobility as the key to fairness. Revisions that appeared in the final rule provided warm but less than specific reassurances endorsing "balance" between "place-based" and "mobility" approaches to fairness. 

Since the final rule emerged, skepticism from groups such as NLIHC has persisted on how the balance will work out in practice. The National Housing Law Project, which included "balance" concerns in its 2013 regulatory comment, has even pointed out a concern published in the Crain's business journal: that it would be possible to accuse New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio of thwarting fair housing goals through his plan to build 80,000 units of affordable housing, on the grounds that much of the housing would be in areas that are historically low-income though now gentrifying.

Of course in San Francisco, 80,000 units of affordable housing sounds like an impossible miracle.

The rarity of that New York City example is a reminder that a fully effective fair housing policy would take more fair housing subsidy money than there's political will to provide or a less unequal economy than the one we've backed into. 

For now at least we can talk about using the resources we have to retain or expand housing choice wherever it's possible, on both the urban and the suburban sides of the exclusion bind.

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