A Fair Approach to Fair Housing

When we received Shelterforce’s newsletter a month ago with ‘Section 8 Ghetto’ in the subject line, we were quite dismayed. Our organization, the National Housing Trust, is dedicated to preserving existing affordable housing, especially subsidized housing like project-based Section 8. From the subject line, we anticipated that the story would be about substandard Section 8 dwellings.

In fact, the article had nothing to do with the quality of Section 8 housing. . . .
Instead, Peter Dreier persuasively argued that even if we could somehow dramatically expand the resources to move poor families from low-income neighborhoods to “high opportunity” areas, there simply aren’t enough apartments in the suburbs to accommodate these families. Not surprisingly, racial bias, exclusionary zoning and NIMBY attitudes have prevented many developers from building apartments in wealthier neighborhoods. A more appropriate title could have been, “If We Don’t Build it, They Can’t Come.”

Should any readers of the headline mistakenly believe that project-based Section 8 housing is typically substandard, however, let’s set the record straight. Recently released statistics from the Urban Institute show that the majority of Section 8 units that are set to expire in the next two years are located in neighborhoods with poverty levels at or below 30 percent. In addition, 83 percent of all Section 8 properties have HUD Real Estate Assessment Center (REAC) scores which are well above satisfactory. Further, 60 percent of Section 8 properties are occupied by elderly and/or disabled individuals.

So, why the misleading title, Shelterforce? We imagine that you were trying to grab the readers’ attention with the shock value of 'Section 8 Ghetto.' The unfortunate title certainly caught our eyes, but we encourage a deeper dive into understanding the debate over how to help low-income residents access affordable housing and opportunity.

This summer, both the U.S. Supreme Court and the Obama Administration affirmed the importance of fair housing laws that prohibit discrimination and help state and local governments ensure that all residents can access decent housing. We welcomed the Supreme Court’s milestone ruling upholding the use of disparate impact as a legal argument in fair housing cases and HUD’s release of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule to help communities meet fair housing obligations. 

Many fair housing advocates promote helping people with low-incomes move out of inner cities and resettle in more affluent suburban communities. Mobility strategies are an indispensable tool for providing housing choice, but they are not sufficient to meet the needs of all residents of distressed urban communities. Not all of these families can be relocated to affluent communities and many would prefer not to leave their neighborhoods. We favor a “mobility plus” strategy, providing residents the choice to move while also working with other residents to transform distressed urban neighborhoods into diverse communities with access to transit and jobs.

Both the Supreme Court decision and HUD’s AFFH rule uphold a “balanced approach” to fair housing, embracing both mobility strategies and housing preservation and community revitalization. Indeed, “HUD’s rule recognizes the role of place-based strategies, including economic development to improve conditions in high poverty neighborhoods, as well as preservation of the existing affordable housing stock, including HUD-assisted housing, to help respond to the overwhelming need for affordable housing.” 

NHT preserves existing affordable rental homes so that low-income families can live in integrated neighborhoods with access to opportunities, wherever they reside. In wealthier suburbs and cities, we protect affordable housing that is at risk due to gentrification. In Washington, D.C., we worked with low-income tenants to preserve their homes near million-dollar condos.

We also engage with residents, local governments and community-based organizations to preserve affordable housing and invest in neglected neighborhoods. Our investments have helped to maintain long-term affordability for properties, improved the energy efficiency and safety of these buildings, and created a healthier environment for low-income residents. We have developed tutoring programs for children, built on-site computer labs to allow parents to improve their technological literacy and pursue job training, and planted gardens that enable residents to grow their own healthy food. 

Instead of abandoning the communities where low-income families live, we strive to transform them into areas of opportunity. These communities have value and we cannot simply promote efforts to move people out. Many residents want to remain in their neighborhoods, and NHT is dedicated to preserving their affordable homes and helping to improve the communities in which they exist.  

We strongly support distributing federal resources in a manner that allows low-income people to make housing choices that are best for themselves and their families. Federal, state and local governments agree with this balanced approach to housing investment. 

So, instead of exacerbating tensions with inflammatory language, let’s work together to create effective solutions.

(Photo credit: Michael Coghlan, via flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Ellen Lurie Hoffman is federal policy director of the National Housing Trust.


  1. I agree with the critique of the headline and that language does matter. And NHT’s embrace of mobility is welcome. But then we get to the classic red herring that seems to be a talking point from folks in the affordable housing industry:

    “Instead of abandoning the communities where low-income families live, we strive to transform them into areas of opportunity. “

    Here too language matters. Just who exactly is advocating abandonment? No one that I have seen. And what is being suggested by the title, “A fair approach to fair housing?”

    Fair housing advocates have always been “mobility plus” or “both/and.” So lets stop using this rhetorical device associating mobility with “abandonment” that seems designed to denigrate mobility and stir up division.

    Then we can finally get on with solutions to the realities and root causes of abandonment and lack of opportunity here in Baltimore (and similar cities) —- chief among them entrenched segregation.

  2. You guys are missing a key point to all of this. You’re discussing “Section 8 housing” in broad terms, never acknowledging the simple fact that not all housing authorities run housing programs the way they should be run and therefore, promoting the idea of moving people out is not a pie-in-the-sky ideal, but something truly critical to the safety and health of the residents.

    Yes, some cities have functional housing programs, Section 8 among them. However, in many cities — my own city of Baltimore in particular, our housing authority has been the subject of HUD investigations based on fiscal mismanagement, the conditions that residents are subjected to, and most recently, alleged sexual abuse of women by maintenance men who demanded sex in exchange for making necessary repairs to apartments.

    Until we’re able to stop talking about housing in 1960s feel-good terms, and address the very real and very troubling issues facing residents in public housing, the problems will only continue. Unless you’re invested in the status quo and therefore not interested in substantive, sustainable change, the old ways of doing things and discussing these issues need to go.

  3. Barbara/Carol:

    Thank you for your comment. Of course, our principal point was that we believed the headline of the article which drove us to write our blog was itself inflammatory. But you are correct in calling us out for also using inappropriate language: Associating mobility strategies with abandonment is not helpful and we will strive not to use such language in the future. As you know, we are working to preserve housing in gentrifying areas, including, but not limited to Baltimore, and introducing vouchers to properties which had previously not served poor families. We will continue to work for real solutions.


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