An Unfinished Agenda

Why it's time for fair housing and community development to reunite to fight the vestiges of segregation.

Squires suggests that a number of things are being done, and can be done, to address these and other legacies of segregation both in terms of individual housing discrimination and community-based discrimination. I agree with most of his suggestions, as well as with his observation that individual fair-housing cases, while absolutely appropriate and necessary, are not sufficient to address the larger task. I would urge fair-housing and community-development advocates to come together in their work on the ground and in their public-policy work around a more ambitious agenda that reflects the individual, institutional, and structural aspects of the problem of racial segregation in our communities. What might that agenda look like?

Congress should hold hearings and make findings about the extent and scope of the ongoing effects of segregation on individuals and communities. The record has been made in courts, in academia, and in social-policy circles, but not in the one place it could matter most: Congress. Findings based upon a thorough and honest assessment of the lingering effects of segregation would not only spur a legislative response for explicit remedial measures to address segregation’s vestiges but would also provide support for other advocacy work by fair-housing and community-development activists.

For example, while the legislative history of the Fair Housing Act and legal decisions interpreting it have made clear that addressing segregation is one of the act’s purposes, the act itself does not use the term “segregation.” Perhaps that wasn’t necessary in 1968 when racial segregation was the housing civil-rights issue, but today the act, particularly as amended, is a much bigger tent, and the country’s consciousness of the history and ongoing effects of segregation has dimmed. Congress should make explicit that the duty to further fair-housing practices imposes a responsibility on recipients of housing and community-development funds to take affirmative steps to ameliorate racial segregation, and make it a violation of the Fair Housing Act for governmental entities to engage in policies or practices that perpetuate racial segregation.

Moreover, Congress should evaluate all existing housing and community-development programs from the standpoint of whether they are currently designed to achieve the legitimate governmental interest of reducing segregation and racial isolation in residential housing markets. The HOPE VI public-housing program, which is replacing distressed public housing with new mixed-income development, must balance the interests of the current residents who may want to return to the redeveloped site with the need to break the stranglehold of segregation that public housing has historically represented. This can be accomplished by requiring some replacement units in non-minority, lower-poverty areas where no public housing currently exists and guaranteeing that no resident of, or applicant for, public housing is required to accept a unit in a census tract in which his race predominates as a condition of receiving federal housing assistance.

In the Section 8 voucher program, Alex Polikoff’s proposed national housing mobility program, calling for a realistic targeting of housing vouchers toward the minority poor locked into inner-city ghettos (see “Lessons from a Chicago Saga,” Shelterforce, Spring 2007), should be implemented as a means of supporting minority families who wish to make that housing choice but are currently held hostage by housing policy that does not recognize the fair-housing rights of low-income people.

The Low Income Housing Tax Credit program — one of the most important vehicles for the creation of new affordable housing — currently requires that tax credits be targeted toward Qualified Census Tracts (any census tract in which at least 50 percent of households have an income of less than 60 percent of the area median gross income.) As a practical matter this steers tax-credit developments into high-poverty, racially concentrated areas and is an excellent example of how a housing program can be used to perpetuate rather than ameliorate segregation. The tax-credit statute should be amended to more effectively balance the interests of community revitalization with the goal of affirmatively furthering fair housing by expanding housing available to low-income families in higher-opportunity areas.

The Community Reinvestment Act should provide for incentives to financial institutions whose investments promote more racially and economically inclusive communities, including housing-related financing that expands housing opportunities for low-income families in high-opportunity areas where there is little or no affordable housing. In the private homeownership market, local initiatives such as that undertaken by the Village of Oak Park, Ill., to which the Squires article alluded, including subsidizing mortgages for families whose move into a neighborhood contributed to racial diversity and reduced racial isolation, are examples of the kinds of unapologetic race-conscious efforts to undo the legacy of segregation our policymakers should pursue.

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Elizabeth Julian is president of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Texas-based nonprofit that works for the creation and maintenance of racially and economically inclusive communities. She served at HUD in the Clinton administration and has practiced poverty and civil-rights law for more than 30 years.

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