Last week, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans to undo major fair housing advances made during the Obama administration. Instead of requiring that HUD-funded communities affirmatively further fair housing by undertaking efforts to promote integration, HUD’s emphasis is shifting to a more general goal of simply increasing affordable housing supply.
While increasing affordable housing opportunities is a praiseworthy aim, it is a weak and irresponsible response to community needs unless it happens within a framework of pro-integrative policy.
Our cities remain highly segregated based on race and income. Metropolitan Milwaukee is the most segregated urban area in the nation for African Americans, and has the lowest African American suburbanization rate of any metropolitan area in the US. This segregation contributes to shocking racial disparities in income, health, education and homeownership. These disparities don’t just harm some individuals, or just people of color; they hurt all of us because they undermine the collective wellbeing of our neighborhoods, our schools, our labor market and our health care systems.
Increasing affordable housing stock, in and of itself, does nothing to dismantle segregation. In fact, affordable housing development has often served to perpetuate racial segregation and disparities, because it has been sited in under-resourced areas, and thus contributed to the concentration of poverty.
When the federal Fair Housing Act was signed into law 50 years ago, our Congress intended it to do two things: to outlaw individual acts of discrimination and to promote integration, thereby creating markets in which all people have equal housing opportunities.
The promise of the Act has never been fulfilled; our federal government has failed, time and again, to enforce it proactively. In fact, federal, state and local governments have all permitted and even embraced public policy that reinforces segregated housing patterns. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council is currently convening a community book read of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein, a masterpiece that details this phenomenon. (Rothstein will be visiting Milwaukee in October to discuss this book; see the Council’s Facebook page for more information.)
We can’t lose sight of integration as a goal with value. Yes, we can create more affordable housing. And yes, we can combat individual acts of illegal housing discrimination. But – and it’s hard to believe it’s still necessary to state in 2018 – we know that separate is not equal. It never will be. Segregated housing conditions will always be harmful, even if all neighborhoods include more affordable housing choices.
In order to enforce the federal Fair Housing Act and promote equal housing opportunity, affordable housing development must be thoughtfully, deliberately designed to promote integration. Our government helped create our segregated living conditions, and it must have an active role in undoing them.