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Time to follow through on Fair Housing Act

Nicholas Kelly & Justin Steil

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, passed one week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. While progress has been made since then in reducing intentional housing discrimination, the nation’s metropolitan areas — including Boston — remain highly segregated by race, with significant negative consequences for the socio-economic mobility of all of a region’s residents.

Working with local community groups, the City of Boston over the past year brought together hundreds of residents to ask for their ideas for addressing segregation as part of Boston’s new “Assessment of Fair Housing.” This community engagement was prompted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s implementation in 2015 of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule that sought to finally make good on a key provision of the Fair Housing Act requiring HUD to actually address not just explicit discrimination but also continuing place based disparities in access to opportunity — a mandate that for nearly 50 years Republican and Democratic administrations declined to enforce.

The rule had been the most significant progress in federal fair housing policy in the past fifty years. It required municipalities receiving HUD funding to engage with their residents and create local strategies to address disparities by race, family status, disability, and other characteristics in access to quality schools, proximity to employment, access to transportation, and exposure to environmental hazards.

And it created hope for finally realizing the promise of the Fair Housing Act. In Boston, dozens of community groups from all over the city — including the Chinese Progressive Association, Mattapan United, the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, the Boston Branch of the NAACP, Metro Housing Boston, the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston, Homes for Families, and others — helped organize community engagement meetings from Mattapan to Charlestown, East Boston to Chinatown.

Before Boston could submit its Assessment of Fair Housing, however, HUD in January suspended the rule and informed cities that it would no longer review these local strategies to address inequality of access to opportunity. HUD effectively told Boston and similar cities that it no longer cared about the months or years of work the cities had put into their plans to address segregation.

We recently interviewed a number of the participants in these meetings to get their thoughts on the process. A Boston tenant and staff member of the Boston Tenant Coalition, Kadineyse Paz, remembered the first of those meetings, when she was surprised to come inside from a downpour to find “a huge crowd of Boston residents — the elderly, young folks, a real diversity of people excited to speak their voice and describe the challenges they are facing in their homes and neighborhoods.” People described having issues finding a home because rents were increasing,” she said, “but also things I hadn’t expected, such as being rejected from an apartment because of a disability, or because of being a family with small children.”

Dwaign Tyndall from Alternatives for Community and Environment noted that, “What’s radical about this Assessment of Fair Housing is for citizens to be able to participate in the planning process,” and that “the consistent emphasis from participants was on the need for more affordable housing and better access to transit, as well as concern about worsening segregation by race and by income as housing prices rise.”

From Philadelphia to New Orleans to Seattle, cities large and small have used the Assessment of Fair Housing process as an opportunity to confront the history of segregation in their communities. In the majority of submissions before the suspension, cities developed more robust plans to advance fair housing than they had previously: from deeply segregated New Orleans, which committed to using public land for affordable housing in neighborhoods with high-performing schools; to suburbs like Chester County Pennsylvania which committed to reduce the number of housing choice voucher holders living in concentrated poverty; to municipalities in the Kansas City region working collaboratively across municipal and state lines to create a regional plan to address disparities in access to opportunity.

From climate change to immigration to fair housing, progress increasingly depends on bold action from our cities and states. In that spirit, the City of Boston has responded by pledging to continue to complete and to implement its fair housing plan. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, other cities should follow their lead and make good on the Fair Housing Act’s original promise to take meaningful steps to reduce segregation in our communities.

Nicholas Kelly is a PhD candidate and Justin Steil an Assistant Professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.