Segregation Conversation Goes National

The conversation about balancing placed-based revitalization and expanding access to high-opportunity areas has been edging onto the national radar recently, in the wake of the Supreme Court decision on disparate impact and HUD's release of the affirmatively furthering fair housing regulations.

The good news is that these are important questions for everyone to be asking in a nation that has absurd poverty levels and is deeply divided by race and class. The less good news is that rather than a united front to present now that housing issues have a wider audience, that wider audience is trying to make sense of the ongoing tension within the field between how these two sides of the same coin should relate to each other, get funded, etc. . .
As our own Greg Squires has pointed out here on Rooflines, when so much of the country still believes in cultural causes of poverty, it is too bad that those of us who don't aren't speaking with one voice in response.

Many people across the spectrum felt they needed to respond to Thomas Edsell's controversial New York Times op-ed “Where Should a Poor Family Live?,” which slams what he calls the “poverty housing industry” for concentrating affordable housing in low-income areas. While his call for more integration is widely supported, there have been the reminders that not everyone wants to move, and some have noted that Edsell dramatically misrepresents both what has caused concentrated poverty and the business model of most affordable housing developers, who would dearly love to build in higher opportunity areas if land costs, NIMBY, and policy obstacles could be overcome.

Broadly, the response from Solomon Greene and Margery Austin Turner from the Urban Institute reframed the conversation as one about housing choice, removing constrained choices wherever they appear, and fighting the entire legacy of segregation:

Today's problems of segregation and neighborhood distress were caused by both disinvestment from poor neighborhoods and exclusion of poor people from opportunity-rich neighborhoods. So the remedy has to include both reinvestment in urban neighborhoods where poor people live and opening up housing options at a regional scale.

And it can be done—it's not just pretty words. Coming soon we're going to have an article from New Jersey that looks at how its community development community and fair housing community collaborate—constantly—on policy advocacy that appropriately advances this balance. We'd like to keep focusing on collaborations, programs, and policies that are showing a united way forward. If you have examples of other policies, organizations, or organizing campaigns that are refusing to buy into the either/or framing, but moving ahead with truly improving quality of life and housing choice for everyone, please share them with us—we'd love to highlight them.

Meanwhile, here is a wonderful example from Chicago of a program that changes the way funding streams work to open up housing options on a regional scale, overcoming one of the systemic problems (resources fragmented across many little jurisdictions) that had been leading to Section 8 housing only being built in the central city. It looks replicable, doesn't come at the expense of revitalization work, and supposedly sidestepped NIMBY opposition. Quite an achievement! This seems like something everyone could get on board with.

(Photo credit: Courtesy of Ian, via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Thanks for highlighting the need to “collaborate- constantly – on policy advocacy,” and Spencer for your thoughtful description as well. This is a key topic that needs to be addressed, and lifting up successful models will be really useful. I’ve been negligent at providing a summary of the conversations going on in the Indianapolis Metro area, but that’s because we’re just starting the grass roots campaign to break down some of our silos. Keep us on your radar though, we’d love to have more conversations.

  2. I find that Thomas Edsell’s article totally misrepresented the argument and made it seem there is unlimited resources that can be devoted to poverty. In fact, there are limited resources. You build more in higher cost and richer areas, you get less affordable housing units and low income families impacted. Less money will then go to the poorer areas, where poverty could become even more severe. Eventually, we will look like parts of South America were slums surround pockets of rich areas. Yes, this sounds extreme but it is very possible when “feelings” overtake “fiscal reality”.

  3. Talk about feelings overtaking reality. The industry often makes the assertion that you get less affordable housing if you build in opportunity areas but they rarely back it up with data. That is because while there are always going to be particularly expensive projects in both areas, this assertion is not true as a generality. In fact, it is a truism of real estate economics that land at the periphery of cities is less expensive than land at the center.

    When affordable housing is built in poor urban neighborhoods, it is usually necessary to first demolish buildings and relocate occupants, and often necessary to put in new infrastructure. Developers may say those sites are less expensive because the city offers already cleared land to them at little or no cost—- but while the developer does not have to internalize those costs in his project budget, they are still incurred by a public entity. In a suburban greenfields project, the full land costs are more likely to be internalized in the developer’s budget, but the public cost is not necessarily higher overall.

    In addition, on a per unit basis it is more expensive to build housing for very low income people in today’s mixed income urban redevelopment projects. Unless you are in a hot market where market rate units can cross-subsidize deep subsidy units, it usually works the other way around with affordable housing dollars, directly or indirectly, subsidizing units built for people above 60% of AMI. HOPE VI is a good example of this. On the other hand, building or acquiring units in an already mixed income area is more efficient because it does not require using affordable housing dollars to also develop and subsidize market units. Nor do you have to expend as much for on-site community facilities to make up for the lack of resources in the surrounding neighborhood.

    Perhaps most importantly, under the prevailing paradigm of mixed income urban redevelopment, it is rare that developers replace all the affordable units that were cleared from the site, resulting in a large loss of affordable housing. The public agencies and industry could, but generally do not, even make an effort to replace the lost units off-site in opportunity areas.

    So, the critique that fewer affordable housing units will be produced should be directed at this redevelopment paradigm, not at efforts to open up exclusionary areas and to meet the demand of very low-income people of color for affordable housing in safer neighborhoods with good schools.

    Historically, going back as far as the 1940’s it was recognized in cities like Baltimore that building “Negro public housing” on slum clearance sites was more expensive than building on vacant land in “white” neighborhoods —- but vacant land sites were not deemed “politically acceptable” for housing that would be occupied by African Americans. White America has always been willing to pay a higher price to maintain segregation. Still true today.

  4. Good discussion. I also believe we’ve not touched on zoning laws or other mechanisms which can require inclusionary, mixed income developments.

    The issue is that local zoning jurisdictions are not inclined to adopt such progressive policies because it doesn’t serve their political base (at the local level, I don’t believe Rs and Ds matter).

    Therefore, we need to develop internal and external pressures to create local support in these communities so the cost burden isn’t born solely by the federal government.

    Internally, there are broad coalitions of service organizations and faith communities who care about these issues, but do not have a the language to express a political solution. Organizing and mobilizing this base is difficult, time consuming, and hard to sustain.

    Externally, regional, state and federal forces need to develop mechanisms to incentivize the development of affordable housing in opportunity areas. This can also be done punitively using the Fair Housing code or other statutes.

    Lastly, however, regional, state and federal resources have to be applied to redevelop disinvested areas. These dollars, though, should not be restricted to building low income housing. These communities deserve investments in housing, commerce and public facilities, we just shouldn’t put all the pressure on LIHTC, HOPE VI, etc. to revitalize these communities.

    More thoughts?


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