Opinion New AFFH Rules: What You Need to Know

Public Housing Must Be a Part of Fair Housing Planning

Because their programs provide the most deeply affordable housing in the country, public housing authorities should be both supported in improving fair housing outcomes and held to account when they fall short.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Peeterv via iStock

This article is part of the Under the Lens series

New AFFH Rules: What You Need to Know

What’s the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision? How has it been enforced in the past? And what do fair housing advocates think of the Biden Administration's proposed changes?

Black-and-white image of apartment towers seen from a distance with a chain-link fence in the foreground.

Photo by Peeterv via iStock

The fight to preserve the environment. The fight for racial, gender, and disability justice. Massive societal upheaval at home and abroad. These are the struggles of our time. They were also the hallmarks of the 1960s. In 1968, in a nation “moving toward two societies, one Black, one White, separate and unequal,” Congress imagined a future with diverse, inclusive communities and an end to housing discrimination with the Fair Housing Act.

Now is the time to implement that future with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s newly proposed fair housing regulation.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) obligation requires all federal agencies, including HUD itself, and their funding recipients to proactively address segregation in programs and activities related to housing and community development. The proposed AFFH rule—which includes a robust community engagement requirement and enforcement by HUD—has the potential to reduce segregation and further fair housing.

How strongly public housing authorities are held to the AFFH rule will be a critical part of its success, or failure. As one of HUD’s largest funding recipients, public housing authorities have an enormous impact on fair housing opportunities within the federal programs that they operate, such as housing assistance and the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. Created as a segregated program for white families, public housing has changed dramatically over the decades, and now often provides the only deeply affordable housing in a given community. By including different analysis requirements tailored to the specific roles of public housing authorities, HUD’s proposed AFFH rule recognizes the crucial role housing authorities play today in providing housing to those who have been historically excluded from housing opportunities, including communities of color, people with disabilities, and families with children, among other groups.

[RELATED ARTICLE: AFFH’s Bumpy Road Overcoming Segregation]

However, public housing authorities still have a long way to go when it comes to advancing fair housing. Many of them still impose policies that disproportionately deny housing to people protected under the Fair Housing Act. For instance, some refuse to rent to people with prior evictions or prior involvement with the criminal legal system.

Some housing authorities in majority-white, low-poverty communities have policies that make it almost impossible for anyone not already in that community to get housing vouchers there. In other jurisdictions, housing authorities have colluded with elected officials and/or police departments to over-police affordable housing or to keep it out of specific areas altogether.

The community engagement and public complaint components of the proposed new rule are critical because they give residents of HUD-subsidized housing and the public an opportunity to identify these discriminatory housing practices in order to eradicate them.

Housing authorities also have particular insight into fair housing challenges in their jurisdictions. For example, they operate the Housing Choice Voucher program, the nation’s largest rental assistance program, allowing more than 5 million people to rent housing on the private market. Three-quarters of the people served by the program are people of color, and some landlords illegally refuse to accept vouchers in an attempt to deny housing to people based on race without saying that’s what they are doing. While federal law still allows discrimination based on someone’s source of income, many state and local jurisdictions have adopted laws to protect source of income, including housing vouchers. Through the AFFH planning process, housing authorities will be able to report on issues like that, which affect the fair housing outcomes of their programs, and perhaps secure federal support to take actions in coordination with their local jurisdiction to address them.

Overall, HUD is on the right track with this new regulation, but it could be improved.

HUD should explicitly name additional barriers to fair housing to ensure that housing authorities collaborate with local jurisdictions to analyze the barriers and set goals to address them. For instance, HUD should also require an analysis of the concentrating of environmental hazards in communities of color and action on protecting tenants from those hazards. Renters served by housing authorities often pay a disproportionately heavy price for zoning and land use policies that permit housing to be in close proximity to polluting industries and facilities. Therefore, the AFFH planning process must include a review of tenant protections and environmental justice.

We are getting there, but there’s still much more to do. Planning in and of itself does not change communities. It will be up to housing authorities, jurisdictions, and HUD to carry out those plans, to make sure that the future of fair housing happens now.

Editor’s note: As of April 6, the comment period for the proposed new federal AFFH rule has been extended. Comments should be received on or before April 24.

This article is part of New AFFH Rules: What You Need to Know, an Under the Lens series produced by Shelterforce. Shelterforce is an independent publication that relies on donations from readers like you. Support this work by donating today.

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