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Why is fair housing still a distant journey for Black America?

Charlene Crowell

Public pressure to restore a key HUD rule has united civil rights and public and private sector stakeholders in a swelling and nearly daily drumbeat of concern calling for fair housing to be supported and HUD’s replacement rule be rescinded. 

On July 23, the rule known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) was terminated. HUD Secretary Ben Carson termed the rule “a ruse for social engineering under the guise of desegregation.” 

Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said, “The worst thing we can do in a major health pandemic is increase housing instability, homelessness, and overcrowding — which is what will happen if the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision is significantly weakened. Taking away strong fair housing tools makes all of our communities less safe and increases housing instability. We have learned that lesson and we should not repeat that mistake. We will not allow Trump to take away tools to fight discrimination or make our neighborhoods less safe.” 

Nikitra Bailey, an Executive Vice President with the Center for Responsible Lending, said, “The government helped create entrenched, pernicious residential segregation and has an obligation to undo it. By rejecting the Fair Housing Act’s mission to dismantle segregation and the inequity it created, this Administration is eschewing its responsibility and will be on the wrong side of history.”

Initially promulgated under the Obama administration, AFFH required local jurisdictions receiving HUD funds to take meaningful actions to halt decades of discriminatory policies and practices that perpetuated racially segregated communities. Under the Trump administration, the rule was suspended and then replaced by a new one termed Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice. Under the new rule, HUD grantees are no longer required to actively pursue local plans to eliminate segregated housing. 

Across the nation, civil rights and housing advocates agree that historical segregation is largely responsible for the nagging inequity that Black America still confronts today. 

Additionally, it is also particularly noteworthy that HUD finalized its new rule without providing an opportunity for public comment — a serious departure from the regular federal rulemaking process. 

For the nation’s estimated 70 largest and oldest public housing authorities that together serve more than one million low-income households who live in federally-assisted housing, the rule is an affront to fair housing advocates across the country. 

In an August 3 letter to Carson, the Council of Large Public Housing Authorities (“CLPHA”) and Reno & Cavanaugh, PLLC wrote, in part, “[R]ather than enforce an act of Congress, which they are obligated to do, HUD and the Administration endeavor to demonstrate Congressional support for the new AFFH rule simply by relying on statements by individual members of Congress that “every community should be free to zone its neighborhoods and compete for new residents according to its distinct values.” 

“As HUD is fully aware,” CLPHA continued, “phrases like ‘distinct values’ have historically been used to justify segregation, discrimination, and overt suppression of the economic advancement of minority communities and communities of color. As HUD is also fully aware, public housing was often intentionally developed in segregated neighborhoods of high poverty and historically has been chronically underfunded because of these same ‘distinct values.’” 

Days earlier, on July 27, three U.S. House leaders — Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee; Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary; and Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-MO), chairman of the Subcommittee on Housing, Community Development and Insurance — issued a joint statement. 

“The Fair Housing Act makes housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability illegal,” wrote the lawmakers. “The law includes a requirement that recipients of federal housing funding and the agencies of the federal government must “affirmatively further fair housing,” meaning that they must administer funds and programs in ways that actively undo and do not perpetuate patterns of historic residential segregation and systemic disinvestment … This senseless and misguided decision to roll back that important progress comes as the president peddles racist rhetoric that is reminiscent of the fearmongering tactics of those who supported racial segregation prior to the Fair Housing Act.”

The House members also announced in their statement that legislation to reinstate the AFFH rule would be introduced. 

Also adding its voice and collective influence to preserve fair housing is the National Association of Realtors (NAR), the nation’s largest trade association, representing more than 1.4 million members involved in all aspects of the residential and commercial real estate industries. 

According to its President, Vince Malta, “NAR maintains that a strong, affirmative fair housing rule is vital to advancing our nation’s progress toward thriving and inclusive communities. With the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color reminding us of the costs of the failure to address barriers to housing opportunity, NAR remains committed to ensuring no American is unfairly denied this fundamental right in the future.”

Malta makes a timely point. With federal stimulus funds expired, not only has $600 in weekly unemployment aid ended; but one in five of the 110 million renters face the looming prospect of eviction by the end of September, according to an Aspen Institute research report. The report, entitled Strong Foundations: Financial Security Starts with Affordable, Stable Housing, also found that for nearly all very-low-income renters, half or more of their monthly income is spent on housing. 

This housing unaffordability finding is also held by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, which measures affordable housing as that costing no more than 30% of monthly income. Its 2020 report, however, showed that America’s housing affordability challenges were widespread even before the pandemic: 

  • 11 million extremely low-income households are priced out of local market-rate apartments.
  • Minimum wage employees need to work an average of 79 hours — just shy of two full-time weeks — to afford a one-bedroom apartment. That same minimum-wage worker would need to work 97 hours to afford a two-bedroom dwelling.
  • A full-time employee needs an hourly wage of $19.56 to afford a one-bedroom apartment, or $23.96 an hour to afford a two-bedroom unit.    

 

According to an early July U.S. Census Bureau survey nearly 43.4 million Americans — or 25.3% of the adult population — either missed last month’s rent or mortgage payment, or have little to no confidence that they can pay next month’s rent or mortgage on time. 

These and other societal ills were the focus of a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, authored by 27 U.S. mayors representing 13 states. Mayors from large cities like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston and Philadelphia joined with midsized cities including Durham, North Carolina, Eugene, Oregon, Lansing, Michigan, and Ithaca, New York, made a public plea for housing. 

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, housing has always been the primary contributor to this country’s massive racial wealth gap,” wrote the mayors. “Systemic racism created a society where white households have 10 times the wealth of Black households. We are at risk of history repeating itself if federal COVID -19 relief measures primarily benefit white households … After decades of disinvestment and denial, now is the time for Congress to show its commitment to housing programs that support the stability and mobility of people of color.”   

How much longer must Black America and other people of color wait for fair housing?

Charlene Crowell is a senior fellow with the Center for Responsible Lending.

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