Heather Way: Affordable housing must be a priority for economically segregated Texas

This column by Heather Way is reprinted with her permission. Way is a clinical professor of law and directs the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at the University of Texas. The column previously ran in the Texas Tribune, Austin American-Statesman and The Monitor in McAllen.

The largest metro areas in Texas now lead the nation in terms of economic segregation. This is bad for Texas and our children.  

According to a report recently released by the Martin Prosperity Institute, the Austin-Round Rock metro area is the most economically segregated large metro area in the country. The metro areas of San Antonio, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth are also in the top 10.  

The economic segregation that plagues our largest metro areas inhibits economic mobility and capital formation. Deep class divides are ultimately associated with slower long-term economic growth, not only in inner cities but also suburban areas.  

But perhaps the most troubling aspect about the geographic isolation between the haves and the have-nots is the impact on our state’s children. The prospects for children moving out of poverty become more daunting in the face of this deepening economic segregation.  

Our public policies helped create our class divides — and it will take a new generation of public policies to break down those divides and offer all of our children true opportunities at success. In particular, our state and local policymakers need to prioritize the creation of inclusive affordable housing opportunities in neighborhoods across metro regions.  

It is no coincidence that Texas’ largest metropolitan areas are among the most economically segregated in the country. These areas have a long history of exclusionary zoning, land-use regulations and overtly discriminatory policies that fostered the geographic separation of the rich and poor.  

For decades, government-supported affordable housing in the Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin metro areas was segregated in low-income neighborhoods. Attempts to expand affordable housing opportunities into wealthier areas faced — and still routinely face — fierce opposition from residents and elected officials in those areas. And even court intervention has been necessary to introduce housing opportunities for lower-income families in places such as Sunnyvale in Dallas County.  

Children who are concentrated in low-income neighborhoods live in more dangerous conditions, in more unsafe housing, attend worse schools with higher dropout rates, and have less access to neighborhood services and amenities than children living in higher-income neighborhoods. These conditions help shape a child’s quality of life and opportunities.  

The disparate access to high-quality public schools is one of the most disturbing byproducts of our metros’ economic segregation. Public schools are supposed to be one of the great equalizers of opportunity for our state’s children. But as metro areas have become more segregated by income, so have our schools, leading to large inequalities in educational outcomes for children.  

As a first step to start addressing economic segregation, the Texas Legislature should eliminate its limits on inclusionary zoning. This would give cities the ability to emulate programs such as those in Montgomery County, Md., that require the inclusion of privately developed affordable homes in residential developments throughout the county.  

The Texas Legislature should also reject new legislation filed this session that would prohibit cities from barring discrimination against tenants based on source of income. This state legislation was filed in direct reaction to an Austin ordinance that creates integrated housing opportunities for low-income tenants with federal housing vouchers.  

At a local level, Texas cities should adopt policies that provide for a “fair share” distribution of affordable housing throughout the city. In particular, cities need to overwrite their land-use policies to eliminate exclusionary zoning policies that bar the construction of smaller homes and apartments. The city of Austin is starting to move in this direction through an overhaul of its land development code.  

Support should also be given to groups such as Inclusive Communities in Dallas that are working creatively to create more racially and economically inclusive communities in the Dallas metro area and throughout Texas. And when Texas cities fail to meet their federal legal obligations to provide integrated housing opportunities, they need to be held accountable by the courts.

These policies will run against deeply ingrained beliefs held by those who want to preserve the status quo. Yet, if we care about creating opportunities for all — especially our state’s children — inclusive affordable housing policies must become a priority.

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