The Future of Fair Housing and the Promise of Local Journalism

Blog Post
Oct. 3, 2013

For the past year, Baltimore’s local NPR affiliate station, WYPR, has produced a one-of-a-kind radio project called The Lines Between Us. Representing the best in local journalism, the series exposed listeners of the local news program Maryland Morning to the pressing issues of inequality and race that affect the city. While the community’s problems continue, the time-limited series has reached its end. The program staged a live recording of its final episode last Thursday at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, a fitting host for the show given the institution’s consonant goals of social justice. The program, upon which the reflections of this post are based, will air tomorrow, Friday, October 4th, and will be available online at soon thereafter.

Like tax reform, fair housing is one of those issues everyone says they’re for, until they hear what it would mean for them. Perhaps recognizing this popular squeamishness about the topic, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has pursued a kind of middle-of-the-road approach to the issue that pleases few. While HUD seeks to promote fair housing in part by providing grants to communities that claim to pursue fair housing, its efforts in this regard, in effect if not in intent, have been largely symbolic. The affordable housing units built in many communities, including Baltimore, often coalesce into pockets of concentrated poverty, in violation of the law. Court cases have established the legal (not to mention the social) imperative of distributing affordable housing throughout administrative regions, rather than allowing new units to gravitate towards areas with high concentrations of existing low-income housing. It’s this that makes people so uncomfortable: deconcentrating low-income housing means putting some in your neighborhood.

For decades, all of the affordable housing built in the Baltimore metropolitan area was placed inside the city limits. The outlying counties got the benefit of federally funded affordable housing in their region, without suffering the political and economic costs of maintaining the units within their jurisdiction. HUD is supposed to deny affordable housing grants to metropolitan regions that fail to promote the goal implicit in the title of the authorizing legislation: the Fair Housing Act. Concentrating affordable housing in low-income neighborhoods of color is decidedly contrary to the law’s intent. Yet HUD has for years contributed to regressivity and stagnation in communities like Baltimore by awarding huge grants without ensuring that the fair housing objectives of the grants are upheld. Until recently, there had been virtually no enforcement of the fair housing mandates that are supposed to be a precondition for receipt of HUD money – communities could simply take the money and carry on with the status quo.

We have forgotten the radical directive promulgated in the Fair Housing Act of 1968: the requirement that the federal government take active steps to “affirmatively further” fair housing across the country. HUD has the power to influence uncooperative communities or withhold funds, but, according to Nikole Hannah-Jones and Megan Haberle, two panelists interviewed for Lines Between Us, this power is rarely exercised.

One way to affirmatively further fair housing is to pursue a plan similar to that of Maryland’s Montgomery County of requiring all new developments of more than fifty units or so to make a certain significant percentage of them affordable. And while cynical observers might sneer that this requirement could be circumvented without too much difficulty through loopholes or political acumen, Haberle notes that the system in Montgomery County has produced, surprisingly, “deeply” affordable housing: units in the $100,000s among those worth over $1 million, for example. While not perfect, such a policy is one way to begin to remedy the terrible housing inequities in the Baltimore region, which are exacerbated by concentrated pockets of affordable housing units in or close to the city boundaries.

Despite the promise of some recent developments, it’s possible that in its next term, the U.S. Supreme Court could significantly scale back the powers provided under the Fair Housing Act, even before they are made fully effective. There is widespread speculation among fair housing advocates that that the Supreme Court, which has been on what seems like a crusade in recent years to revise settled legal precedents regarding established civil rights law, like those established in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, would limit the potency of tools created to promote fair housing if it were to follow through with hearing a pending case. Haberle speculates that the parties in the case Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action may seek to settle the case out of court, as have other affordable housing advocates in similar cases, because of a fear that a conservative Supreme Court would invalidate disparate impact claims that rely on the “affirmatively further” provision.

In the absence of judicial action, it’s possible that the federal executive branch could begin to make broader use of its powers to actively promote (that is, “affirmatively further”) fair housing in the near future. We are still a long way from truly “fair” housing, despite the decline in explicit racism in housing choice. Programs like The Lines Between Us allow the public to evaluate whether the government is making full use of the tools available to it to achieve its democratically determined missions. Promoting fair housing isn’t just the job of nonprofits and charities; it’s the law. And we should be using all the tools available to us under the law to see it through.

Update: You can listen to the full radio show, on which this post is based, here.