The right to choose, the right to stay, the right to equal treatment, the right to have a say: Reimagining fair housing

[The following are remarks I prepared for the keynote at the National Association of Collegiate Planners Conference in Houston, October 23, 2015.]

Where we live depends too much on our race and income.

Where we live determines what sort of life chances we have.

This has been proven by an avalanche of recent research. Consider the work of Chetty and Sharkey on long-term outcomes of children in high poverty neighborhoods. Read the studies out of Johns Hopkins on the economic devastation of black homeowners who bought homes in minority segregated neighborhoods. Consider Harvard’s Matthew Desmond’s work on the impact of housing instability on people of color, Dr. Robert Bullard’s work from Texas Southern University on environmental racism’s impacts on African-American neighborhoods and numerous studies of public health disparities in high poverty neighborhoods.

For the past forty years I have worked with Texas grassroots, low income leaders and their neighborhood and community organizations to support their efforts to achieve the American dream of a decent, affordable home in a quality neighborhood. A lot of things stand in the way: Low wages, bad public planning, lack of public funding.

But the root cause of inequality today is racial segregation and discrimination.

Legendary Texas civil rights attorney Mike Daniel once described the causes of persistent segregation and its harms this way…

“Segregation continues to be functional for local governments. It allows government to save money by providing unequal services to a less politically powerful population. Segregation avoids inflicting unpopular burdens such as living near facilities such as sewage treatment plants and landfills on more politically powerful populations. The results of the barriers will be to subject minority families to either a lower level of benefits or a higher degree of disadvantages or to both. Segregation,” Daniel notes, “is not done to give minorities more of the good stuff.”

For the past several years my colleagues and I have been working with community-based organizations in Houston on the problems of fair housing and residential inequality between white neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. Our research shows Houston perfectly fits Mike Daniels’ description.

Fifty years ago another generation’s struggle for civil rights produced laws that should have led us to overcome housing segregation and neighborhood inequality. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Public participation requirements established in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 were put in place to empower low-income citizens to play an active role in program design and administration through “maximum feasible participation.” Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, is intended to end housing discrimination and to racially integrate neighborhoods.

Despite these laws, chronic segregation and neighborhood inequality persists.

How can this be?

I want to highlight two failures. First, as a country, we gave up on residential integration within weeks of passing the Fair Housing Act which mandated it. Second, our government has failed to enforce civil rights and fair housing laws, particularly in regards to city and state actions in the provision of subsidized housing and public services in neighborhoods of people of color.

Consider first the abandonment of residential integration as a public policy. Shortly after passage of the Fair Housing Act, during the 1968 presidential campaign, Robert Kennedy, vying for the Democratic Party nomination, proposed “community development” as a counter to Eugene McCarthy’s support for the enforcement of the provisions of the Fair Housing Act that emphasized the removal of barriers to racially integrated neighborhoods. Kennedy’s approach was adopted. Embracing community development for segregated minority neighborhoods left politicians representing white, higher-income neighborhoods free to do what comes naturally: Voting against appropriations for community development in minority neighborhoods outside their districts.

In the first year of the Community Development Block Grant program, there was nearly $2.5 billion for nearly 600 city and state governments. Forty years later, there was about $3 billion for nearly 1200 governmental grantees. So the number of local governments participating in the program doubled, but the funding increased by only about one-fifth (not to mention the effects of inflation).

In response, some community development organizations and politicians representing impoverished neighborhoods have responded to the shortage of funds for community development by relying on subsidized housing funds as the only source for funding community revitalization. In doing so, some have gone so far as to push back against the rare efforts to direct subsidized housing funds into high opportunity neighborhoods where no subsidized housing and little affordable housing exists.

The only public funds that privileged white neighborhoods don’t want, and generally don’t get, are the funds to build subsidized housing. Hence, more subsidized housing gets built in impoverished, racially segregated neighborhoods. Through this, racial and economic segregation is reinforced.

As a result, after 50 years the main effect of emphasizing community development over residential integration has been continued deterioration of impoverished neighborhoods and the maintenance of high levels of residential racial segregation.

The lack of funding for community revitalization has led to the political marginalization of low income communities of color and their residents. We see this play out in the financial strangulation of the neighborhood-based community development movement. In Houston today, the fourth largest city in the U.S., there are only a handful of neighborhood-based community development corporations (CDCs) still active. These are the institutions Robert Kennedy and others favoring community development proposed carry out neighborhood revitalization. Most of the handful of the remaining neighborhood-based CDCs in Houston principally focus on housing production. Together they probably produce on average less than 200 units of housing a year. Yet Houston grows by more than 125 people each day. CDCs, which should be the essential, neighborhood-based, democratic infrastructure for community engagement, political mobilization, planning and revitalization, thus cannot effectively play that critical role. Many CDCs today are also weighed down by a business model based exclusively on the continual building of new subsidized housing.

I helped to incorporate and run CDCs for many years. I believe CDCs are essential to fair housing and neighborhood equity. But CDCs are dying in the communities where I work. The death of CDCs is a sign of the overall decay and marginalization of historic low income communities of color.

This takes us to the second major failure of civil rights and fair housing. Title VI and Title VIII have not been systematically enforced by the federal government against state and local governments. Local governments have been free to divert federal and local funds and withhold or not maintain public infrastructure in low-income communities.

Congress enacted a major new housing initiative in the 1980s known as the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program.  Since then, this program has built or preserved through rehab over two million units. Unfortunately, in Texas urban areas, the program has placed the overwhelming majority of its government subsidized apartments in low income African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Housing authorities and government agencies have actively encouraged the unlawful segregation of virtually all subsidized housing in high poverty, neighborhoods of color. Want proof? Read through the many entries on this blog or read the federal court’s ruling in the Inclusive Communities Project v. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs case.

The good news is there are forces at work that are about to change this.

First, the Supreme Court, in the aforementioned case this summer, affirmed the legality of claims under the Fair Housing Act using a standard known as “disparate impact.” This permits legal challenges to practices that have the effect of violating the Fair Housing Act even if it cannot be proven that the explicit intent is to unlawfully discriminate. The discriminatory effect itself is now enough.

Second, the Obama Administration just announced HUD’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. This is a requirement that governmental recipients of HUD funds assess the state of fair housing and integration within their jurisdictions then develop and adopt a plan, and take specific actions to “affirmatively further fair housing.” This provision has been present in the law for a long time but has seldom been enforced.

Third, and especially significant in my opinion, grassroots community leaders of color have figured out that Title VI and Title VIII, coupled with disparate impact claims and the new HUD rule, are tools they can use to address segregation, discrimination, neighborhood inequality and a host of problems in their neighborhoods. We will soon see claims filed challenging neighborhood inequality.

Public officials who care about racial justice, and especially planing professionals, have an important role to play in light of these three developments. Civil rights advocates and fair housing groups like mine are staffing up with planners to do the analytical work to challenge segregation and inequality. Cities will soon be engaging in fair housing assessments and planning under the new HUD rule. Low income community organizations in particular need planners to document conditions and craft solutions to long entrenched segregation and inequality. This should also be a principle new mission for CDCs.

We live in the most exciting and dynamic times for these issues since 1968. It is especially significant that community organizations are embracing this moment. The impetus for challenging segregation and discrimination is just beginning to shift from lawyers and bureaucrats to community leaders and activists. Grassroots community organizing is essential to increase the pressure for enforcement of the law and to politically mobilize people. Citizen activism around fair housing that has been diminishing over the past 50 years is being reinvigorated.

A major problem has long been how to explain the causes and harms of residential segregation in terms that people can understand. The available analytical work is complex. For the first 35 years of my work I struggled to clearly articulate what the low income community leaders and organizations I worked for were asking government to do and why government was responsible. The specific issues in communities varied widely from place to place: Housing low income people could afford, controlling chronic neighborhood flooding, the need for safety from the refinery down the street, sidewalks, quality schools and so on.

Today, thanks to insightful community leaders, we have a clear way of linking these discrete problems to their systemic cause and the laws that give us a tool to challenge them.

The insight came from a Houston citywide organization of African-American and Hispanic community groups, the Texas Organizing Project (TOP). TOP’s members have a number of long-standing and well-founded grievances regarding the inequities in public services and facilities and the misuse of federal housing and community development funds. All these are clear Title Vi and Title VIII violations. Leveraging a fair housing complaint, TOP negotiated an agreement with Houston Mayor Annise Parker for the equitable use of tens of millions of dollars in federal disaster recovery funds to make a downpayment on the solution. In the course of this effort my staff and I are spending a lot of time in conversations with TOP’s low income community leadership. Together we discuss research and pour over maps depicting neighborhood inequality between white neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color.

Over the course of the past year, neighborhood leaders came up with something that had eluded me for decades: a clear explanation of what was require to secure civil rights and racial justice in the city. There are four rights TOP community leaders are organizing to win:

  •         The right to choose
  •         The right to stay
  •         The right to equal treatment and
  •         The right to have a say

These rights link contemporary housing and neighborhood problems to the 50-year-old civil rights laws.

The right to choose is the promise of mobility, integration and choice of where to live for people of color.

The right to stay guarantees against the involuntary displacement of low income people of color through gentrification that diminishes their access to improved neighborhoods and that frustrates economic and racial integration.

The right to equal treatment demands that public services and facilities, along with certain regulated private services like access to credit, are provided equitably in low income neighborhoods of color, at the same levels they are in privileged neighborhoods of whites.

The right to have a say is a demand that government permit low income people of color meaningful democratic participation in the decisions that affect their families and neighborhoods.

  •         The right to choose
  •         The right to stay
  •         The right to equal treatment
  •         The right to have a say

These four rights demand, not the either/or choice debated by Kennedy and McCarthy back in 1968, but a right to both neighborhood revitalization and fair housing choice.

The four rights require us to:

  • Build new subsidized housing and improve the ease of housing voucher usage in high opportunity white neighborhoods where housing choices for low income persons of color do not exist.
  • Invest in subsidized and affordable housing as a pro-integrative strategy in neighborhoods on the cusp of, or undergoing, gentrification to stabilize them as economically and racially integrated neighborhoods offering high opportunities to residents.
  • Maintain and upgrade existing housing in distressed neighborhoods but be very circumspect about adding additional subsidized housing there. Where existing subsidized housing in these neighborhoods is distressed and subject to environmental and social blight, it should be relocated or remediated.

Perhaps the most important contribution of TOP community leaders has to do with the fourth right: The right to have a say. Many low income community leaders are strongly committed to community revitalization. Many are older folks who are in their community to stay. They know that their communities need revitalization and younger families if they are to survive.

But TOP asserts the right to have a say as an absolute right that individual families must be given to determine where it is best for their family to live.  At the same time the right to have a say also refers to the right of democratically accountable neighborhood leaders to exercise their voice in the future of their community.

In recognizing the “Right to Choose” they recognize that the community’s needs are vital but necessarily subordinate to the essential civil right of individuals to decide what is best for themselves and their children. This right to choose must be made real for everyone, including families dependent on subsidized housing. Yet today, this right is not realized because of the exclusion of virtually all subsidized housing from higher income white neighborhoods. TOP leaders are clear. When they say they support both a right to fair housing choice and community revitalization, they really do mean they support a right to both.

A primary way TOP leaders advocate for this to play out is through directing special help to African-American and Hispanic homeowners in distressed neighborhoods. For generations, minority real estate equity has been stripped by segregation and substandard public services. African-American homeownership rates have declined precipitously in recent years partly as a result. This inability of homeowners of color to realize appreciation in home equity is one of the major factors in economic inequality in our country. Addressing this is critical to securing the right to equal treatment.

To do this we should:

  • offer public help in improving and maintaining homes of lower income homeowners,
  • prevent property tax increases from forcing homeowners from their homes and neighborhoods,
  • restore well functioning real estate and credit services in distressed neighborhoods, and
  • provide the long absent public services to promote increased economic diversity.

CDCs are naturals to take the lead in these areas. This will require new funding and a realignment of the operating model of CDCs, who have been told for decades by national intermediary organizations that they had to be rental housing production businesses and not community organizers or broad-based community developers and planners. CDCs must be reinvigorated to support organized neighborhood residents to craft and carry out community led strategies that revitalize housing and secure missing essential public services.

I began by saying that we need enlightened government officials and particularly planners to help secure these four rights.

Planners need to insist that urban planning not limit itself to the built environment, but also consider racial and social equity. This means that planners must prod public officials to pay attention to promoting racially and economically integrated neighborhoods, ensuring equal access to public services and facilities, and expand access to affordable housing choices across all neighborhoods,

Here are some ways planners can advance the four rights:

  • In furtherance of the right to choose, document and track progress toward residential economic and racial integration in the city. Challenge exclusionary land use practices. Combine housing planning with traditional land use planning.
  • In furtherance of the right to stay, carefully monitor for signs of gentrification and help public officials understand the tools they can employ to stabilize historic, lower-income minority populations who choose to remain in neighborhoods at risk of gentrification.
  • In furtherance of the right to equal treatment, insist that local governments track the comparative quality and condition of public services and infrastructure across neighborhoods. Incorporate into planning documents a commitment to the equitable provision of these services. This should also include an analysis of the equity of local zoning and other land use protections, along with an environmental justice assessment comparing harmful environmental exposures and risks between neighborhoods of color and white neighborhoods.
  • In furtherance of the right to have a say, insist that individuals, including residents in subsidized housing have a say where they want to live by providing access to housing options in high opportunity, low-poverty neighborhoods. Institute neighborhood based planning, that empowers community residents and leaders, serves as the basis for master planning and guides expenditure of public funds. Support neighborhood-based CDCs to work with city agencies to carry out planning involving neighborhood residents to undertake community development and reinvestment activities.

For 50 years we have tried and failed to make racially separate communities equal. I am very optimistic that we are finally poised to make historic progress because social science researchers and grassroots residents are speaking out about the consequences of our flawed national policy.

Today’s struggle for racial justice, integration and equity relies on the enforcement of civil rights laws won through great sacrifice fifty years ago. Today’s struggle is evolving under the leadership of grassroots citizens who are reimagining fair housing to secure…

  • The right to choose
  • The right to stay
  • The right to equal treatment and
  • The right to have a say