Housing Policy and Race

I’ve been thinking a lot about housing and segregation recently. Last week I attended the annual meeting of the ABA Forum on Affordable Housing and Community Development and there was an excellent panel discussion on race and housing policy. One of the panelists, Richard Rothstein, made the point that our segregated urban areas area are a result of intentional discrimination in the early and mid-twentieth century, before the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act. I am not sure I completely agree, particularly because we have had fifty years to remedy the effects of housing discrimination and yet the problem remains.  For a more compelling argument about the causes of segregated communities, folks might want to read Stacy Seischnaydre’s excellent article, “The Fair Housing Choice Myth,” 33 Cardozo L.Rev. 967 (2012), reprinted in 23 J. of Affordable Housing & Community Development Law 149 (2015)   www.cardozolawreview.com/Joomla1.5/content/33-3/Seicshnaydre.33-3.pdf

But, whatever the cause of housing segregation, the reality is that the United States has a big, difficult problem to solve and we will have more Fergusons and more Baltimores, more Michael Browns and Freddy Grays, unless we start to own up to the problem and come up with some new ideas about how to solve it.  One thing seems pretty clear.  The Housing Choice Voucher program (Section 8), which was meant to encourage low income families to move out of low opportunities urban areas, has not had the effect that policymakers had hoped.  The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities published a report last year that examines the Housing Choice Voucher program and makes some modest recommendations:  http://www.cbpp.org/research/creating-opportunity-for-children?fa=view&id=4211.  Some of the recommendations include:

  1. Create incentives for housing voucher administrators (mostly public housing authorities) by, among other things, “rewarding agencies that help families move to high-opportunity areas by paying these agencies additional administrative fees;” and
  2. “Expand housing choices in safe, low-poverty neighborhoods with well-performing schools” by adopting policies “such as tax incentives and laws prohibiting discrimination against voucher holders — to expand participation by landlords in these neighborhoods in the HCV program and to encourage interested families to use their vouchers in these areas.”

For my own part, I would add several other points.

  1. As Ms. Seischnaydre points out in her article, we cannot desegregate a community that is majority African-American or Latino without addressing the preferences of white families not to move there.  There must be an “entrance strategy” for white families to be encouraged to return to majority-minority communities.  In other words, in the absence of  incentives for white residents to move into majority-minority neighborhoods, we cannot solve the problem of segregated communities merely by encouraging low income families to leave.  It doesn’t work and it is unfair that the burden of desegregating these communities rest solely on the low income residents.
  2. The Housing Choice Voucher program needs to address the transportation challenges that confront a family that wants to move from a low opportunity to a high opportunity community.  Additional supports may also be required to insure that families moving to high opportunity areas have the best possible chance of success in their new community.

Whatever we do, we must recognize that this is a long slog that will take sustained, concentrated effort.  In Massachusetts, many communities have inclusionary zoning bylaws and the state has a policy of trying to fairly disburse affordable housing projects throughout the state by means of General Laws c. 40B.  Notwithstanding the Commonwealth’s efforts, the state still has a major problem with segregated housing (with the City of Springfield being one of the worst offenders).  If Massachusetts continues to have racially imbalanced neighborhoods notwithstanding all these efforts, desegregating our neighborhoods throughout the country is a big undertaking that requires us to have an honest dialogue about the problem and try some new policy approaches to move the needle.