Income and wealth gaps across the nation have widened dramatically over the last 30 years. This growing gap has further exacerbated racial and economic segregation across the country, especially in major metropolitan areas, where there are real economic costs to entire regions.
The consequences of these disparities are stark. The latest research shows that people living just a few blocks apart from each other often have drastically different life outcomes—and that the people who experience the greatest degree of financial strain and housing instability disproportionately live in low-income communities of color.
Building more equitable, inclusive mixed-income communities is one strategy to combat persistent poverty, promote social connectivity, and increase economic mobility for all. Yet the creation of such communities is increasingly hindered by public resistance to economic and racial inclusion, the lack of coordination among government agencies and private-sector partners, rising housing development costs, operational constraints, and other barriers. In addition to these obstacles, deep cuts to federal funding for many affordable housing and community development programs have created a greater need for non-federal public initiatives and investments.
Courageous leadership, creative cross-jurisdictional partnerships, and alliances across social and political interests are key to advancing inclusion and equity. Transforming how we develop and promote the creation of more economically integrated, racially diverse communities will take practice and further exploration. Still, there are meaningful and creative policy strategies that leaders working at the state and local level can use to advance inclusive, equitable communities.
Here are three ways local leaders, including those working in community organizations, city government, and state housing financing agencies, can address racial and economic exclusion and inequity through public policy. These ideas are based on insights from leading practitioners and policy experts.
Tell Affluent Communities They Can’t Say ‘No’
State, city, and community leaders are in unique positions to create and advance policy changes. Their decisions work to either combat or perpetuate racial and economic inequities. Ben Metcalf, the former director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, has highlighted how leaders in areas where there is a long history of local control of land-use policy have used “the local political process to regulate who lives (and, more critically, who does not live) in their neighborhoods and cities.” California, he notes, is one place that illustrates how this has played out on the ground. As of April 2019, only 11 of California’s 540 cities were keeping pace with their share of the state’s goal for affordable housing production. In response, key leaders in the state senate and former Governor Jerry Brown pushed forward a bill that required cities and counties to accept a new State Ministerial Streamlining Program. The program, along with the California Fair Housing law, allows for new, affordable housing to be built in communities that are failing to adhere to state-mandated affordable housing goals. This means that cities in California cannot say “no” to mixed-income or affordable housing projects. That type of streamlined legislative power makes a huge difference in “affluent, exclusive communities wary of moving toward a mixed-income neighborhood,” Metcalf notes. As a result of these efforts, San Francisco, Cupertino, and Berkeley have all approved affordable housing projects. We need bold local leadership and practical legislative movement such as this effort in California.
Pool Public Housing Funding (and Decision-Making) Across Agencies and Regions
Even small and much-needed mixed-income developments are likely to face seemingly insurmountable technical, financial, and political hurdles. These difficulties are further complicated by the fact that many public agencies and departments are responsible for permitting, inspecting, and allocating resources, including housing departments, planning departments, zoning commissions, development authorities, public housing agencies. These agencies and the local players who work with them have tools they can leverage to advance equity and inclusion. To successfully address a community’s housing challenges as well as combat the history of racist public policies, it is vital for these agencies to work closely together, in partnership with residents who represent the communities being targeted for investment.
Robin Snyderman and Antonio Riley have highlighted Chicago’s Regional Housing Initiative (RHI) as an example of how partnerships across jurisdictional and agency boundaries can lead to advancements in promoting inclusive communities. The initiative, which started in 2002, is an interagency collaboration of housing authorities and other partners. It has helped finance 40 housing developments that are affordable and near jobs, quality schools, and transit throughout the Chicago region. Thirty-three of them are up and running in 2019; the other seven are nearly ready for occupancy. This effort navigates complex public housing policies and provides flexibility in pooling resources across agencies and jurisdictions. If this approach were replicated and scaled, it could potentially foster more regional coordination, which would result in hundreds of new housing opportunities.
Break Open Wonky Regulatory Processes Like the QAP
Inclusive and equitable mixed-income communities must start with and remain true to inclusive and equitable participatory engagement. Those who seek to promote mixed-income communities must first work to see and understand the causes of community or broader public resistance, seek to address them, and work with community members to ensure their voices and values are part of the solution.
For real, transformational change to happen, policymakers and other local leaders must be willing to create transparent policymaking processes and to establish authentic connections with organizations and individuals who know the communities they serve well. The credibility of local decision-making processes is invaluable to ensuring policy development and implementation that prioritizes equity. Many localities and states, however, are not transparent about how affordable-housing priorities are set by mechanisms such as the Qualified Action Plans, which determine the allocation of financing for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program.
Bryan Grady and Carlie Boos, who worked together at the Ohio Housing Finance Agency, note that governing documents that determine the allocation of resources “are often created with little input and responsiveness” to the priorities of communities and their residents. To address this, they recommend that government officials work directly with community stakeholders to engage a broader array of local constituents in creating Qualified Allocation Plans and other official documents that determine priorities. The engagement of a diverse group of community stakeholders can pave the way for both greater acceptance of proposed policy changes and projects and smoother implementation of specific inclusion strategies. Policymakers must embed specific community outreach and engagement requirements in their processes to ensure robust and authentic community participation and power in policy development.
This article draws from essays contained in What Works to Promote Inclusive, Equitable Mixed-Income Communities, co-edited by Mark Joseph and Amy Khare and published by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.