An Unfinished Agenda

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

Anyone involved in affordable-housing development is all too aware of the NIMBY dynamic, whereby local officials give in to angry white homeowners who do not want housing that might be occupied by “those people” in their neighborhood. No one should give implicit support to these actions by failing to condemn them and/or agreeing that the affordable housing should be put only where poor people already live, and only where it is “wanted.” Allowing NIMBYism to act as an effective heckler’s veto to efforts to expand affordable housing in non-low-income, predominately white communities may theoretically make more affordable-housing resources available to low-income communities, but it is a Faustian bargain. It helps perpetuate the perception that low-income people of color are happy being “contained” in “their” communities and ignores the fact that low-income people of color, no less than their middle-class counterparts, are not monolithic in their desires about where and how they want to live.

Community-development activists should partner with fair-housing activists to break down barriers that exclude low-income people of color from a community where it is clear that the legacy of segregation is otherwise going to persist. Without such concerted efforts to break segregation’s bonds, community-development practitioners effectively and repeatedly undermine the mission at the heart of their field. A society that allows such exclusion is not likely to be a society that will see the needs and viability of a minority community as a high priority. Advocates interested in working outside the traditional community-development and fair-housing boxes can employ community-organizing skills to identify and organize groups of individuals who want to live in more diverse and inclusive communities and provide them with the tools to make their voices heard.

If Squires is right — and I think he is — that the Supreme Court has put fair housing back on the social and political agenda, it will only stay there with effective advocacy. While the term “fair housing” has come to mean many things both in the courts and in the arena of public policy, the core issue that the Supreme Court’s education decisions thrust back into the national debate and into the national psyche is racial segregation. And although the terms “movement” and “activist” may seem relics of a bygone era to many of us who now think of ourselves as “practitioners” in our chosen “fields,” community developers and fair-housing advocates would do well to reconnect with our common history and sense of social and racial justice that spurred the work that we do as a catalyst for concerted action.

There will be a new U.S. president elected in 2008, and signs are that the country is prepared to move toward a more progressive agenda on many fronts. It’s time for the fair-housing and community-development worlds to come together to lay out a common agenda calling for fair and affordable housing in stable, healthy communities that are racially and economically inclusive. This will require that we deal forthrightly with the national legacy of racial segregation and what it means for the people and the communities of which we are all a part. It is the elephant in the room, and he is not going away.

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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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