Last Wednesday, the Obama administration released new housing rules that will dramatically strengthen the way our nation addresses segregation—a move that has been met with staunch blowback from the right. The disconnect between their criticism and the support the rule has received from housing experts, progressives, and countless local government underscores this reality: a country that condemns segregation as a malady of its past must own up to the legacy of exclusion, disinvestment, and disadvantage this practice has left in its wake—and do something to change it.
Consider my hometown. When I was growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s, segregation permeated every aspect of life—where you went to school, where you could work, and where you could live. Though many of the overtly discriminatory policies of my youth are now illegal, the patterns of racial segregation of decades past overlap almost completely with patterns of poverty and disinvestment today, leaving many low-income communities of color cut off from the kind of community assets—good schools, healthy environments, job opportunities—that would allow them to thrive.
For instance, in zip code 63106, a distressed neighborhood in northern St. Louis, 96 percent of residents are black and 52.5 percent of families live in poverty—more than three times the national poverty rate. A child born and raised here is expected to live only 69 years—10 years below the national average—and attend schools deemed so substandard that the state was forced to take them over in 2007. Drive 20 minutes southwest and you reach Clayton (zip code 63105), an affluent and predominately white suburb of St. Louis, where residents live on average 16 years longer, and their children attend schools in one of the best districts in Missouri.
This is what modern-day segregation looks like. The new rule, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), seeks to remedy such conditions by empowering local leaders to more effectively recognize racism, discrimination, and persistent patterns of segregation and address these issues by ensuring that all their residents have access to vital community resources.
Through the rule, HUD will provide cities, counties, and states receiving federal housing and community development funds with technical guidance, local demographic data, and a new assessment tool that will help them identify barriers to opportunity by measuring neighborhoods’ proximity—or lack thereof—to high performing schools, public transit, local labor markets, and other key community assets. Armed with a better understanding of not only which neighborhoods are struggling, but why they are struggling, local officials can then develop solutions that fit the unique problems in their areas and steer investments to implement these solutions. This set of resources, piloted in 74 regions nationwide over the past five years, provides a more holistic assessment of how housing choices intersect with other community factors to either promote or constrain opportunity in a given neighborhood.
Though this rule is a direct response to city and state-level requests for better tools and guidance, it has unfortunately come under attack by Rep. Paul Gosar, an Arizona Republican who sponsored an amendment (passed in the House) to prohibit the implementation of the rule. Rep. Gosar is part of a growing movement of conservative leaders who are campaigning against the rule, claiming that it is a form of social engineering or that the federal government is trying to micromanage local jurisdictions.
This simply isn’t the case. My organization, PolicyLink, worked with dozens of regions to pilot the AFFH rule, from New Orleans to Seattle to my hometown of St. Louis. In every location, local leaders and housing experts reported that the data and assessment tools helped them better understand and plan for the needs and well-being of their residents. In St. Louis, this was about better understanding the racial disparities that exist between zip codes and the regulatory barriers landlords in higher opportunity neighborhoods faced when attempting to offer fair housing to lower income tenants. In Seattle, it was about recognizing the dearth of career-track jobs in several poor neighborhoods of color, which helped local leaders plan for a new food distribution hub and job incubator in those areas. In New Orleans, it was about making the link between public transit and employment—when local officials realized that bus schedules were out of sync with the shift schedules for two of the city’s largest industries (hospitality and healthcare), they realigned transit options to meet the needs of these workers.
With the release of the AFFH rule, the US government is renewing its commitment to fair housing at a crucial moment in our country’s history. America is rapidly becoming a majority people of color; already more than half of children under five are of color. If we stand idle now, we will watch the same patterns of discrimination that marked the past century rob this and future generations of the chance to reach their potential. To succeed as a nation, we must build the kinds of inclusive communities where everyone can access opportunity, regardless of their zip code or racial heritage. The AFFH rule is a pivotal step towards this goal.