November 14, 2019; Shelterforce
As NPQ has often noted, in the US, we have a critical dearth of affordable housing. According to a recent Curbed article, “nearly two-thirds of renters nationwide say they can’t afford to buy a home.” Meanwhile, “Harvard researchers found that in 2016, nearly half of renters were cost-burdened,” which means those households spent 30 percent or more of their income on rent.
This outcome descends in part from of a legacy of housing discrimination that has kept communities of color in separate and unequal conditions. Housing patterns, in turn, have limited access to good jobs, and poor education has kept residents unable to garner the full benefit of decades of growing wealth. Although fair housing policies have had positive effects, they have not reversed decades of ingrained discrimination.
One obvious need is to build more affordable housing. But protecting existing low- and middle-income renters is also critical. Deciding who gets to live in new homes, particularly infill units meant to improve housing conditions in existing neighborhoods, has proven difficult. Should current residents, especially if facing displacement pressures, be given preference to move into the new affordable housing units in their neighborhoods? Or should they be open to any and all people to preserve fairness and make sure old segregated patterns are not locked in forever?
Those are positions we come across in the suburbs—“Our people are going to get this housing, so we don’t have to worry about outsiders coming”—and that violates fair housing laws. When an urban neighborhood starts to do it, it doesn’t become legal. There are other policies that can and should be crafted to minimize displacement of existing residents without needing to discriminate against other populations.
Advocates for community preference policies contend that protecting the rights of current residents is more important and that fears that such preferences will lock in existing racial demographics are overstated. Edward G. Goetz, professor of urban planning at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, writing in Shelterforce, strongly feels that those who oppose community preference in the name of fair housing are doing a disservice to the very people they seek to defend.
Narrowing the concept of fair housing to the spatial arrangement of people across neighborhoods and reducing fair housing advocacy to the pursuit of integration is a disservice that obscures the many different ways in which housing problems like displacement are experienced across race.
From Professor Goetz’s perspective, those who prioritize fair housing over the desire of residents to remain in their current communities impose their own value systems upon those for whom they claim to speak. In doing so, they continue a top-down paternalistic view that devalues the wishes and wisdom of those most affected by the social policies being debated, leaving behind many of the problems we are trying to fix:
The desire to remain in one’s community, among residents of neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized and subjugated, as communities of color have been in the American context, is not an exercise in racial exclusion for the purpose of achieving or maintaining the ethnic/racial purity of a neighborhood. To interpret it as such is to fundamentally misinterpret the reality of lower-income communities of color as related to issues of urban development, and to ignore the history of serial relocation due to urban renewal, highway construction, public housing demolition, gentrification, predatory lending, and foreclosure that perpetually threaten people of color in American cities…
Households can and do wish to remain nearby to close friends and family, or to keep their children in the same schools, or to keep attending the same place of worship, or to remain close to a job, or any number of other reasons having nothing to do with the overall racial makeup of the neighborhood.
Open and fair housing policies and practices are essential, but so too is protecting the meaning of community for current residents of redeveloping areas. That’s the quandary policymakers and advocates struggle to reconcile. As Diandria Barber observed in her NPQ article examining New York City’s efforts to reconcile these two opposing forces, what’s needed is a “holistic approach” and “a space for current residents to provide feedback and weigh in.”—Martin Levine