This article is the sixth in our series—Community Development: National Leaders’ Visions—that NPQ, in partnership with the CEO Circle, an informal network of BIPOC community economic development leaders, is publishing in the coming weeks. The series focuses on identifying what is required to address key transformational challenges and to help the field of community economic development better accomplish its twin missions of racial and economic justice.

In the US, place and opportunity are inextricably linked. Where you live matters; it impacts almost everything about you—your chances of graduating from high school or college, getting arrested, net worth, income, ability to own a home, credit score, and how long you will live. Your zip code is a better determinant of your health than your genetic code.

Community development leaders widely recognize the centrality of housing to people’s ability to access key opportunities. However, the Fair Housing Act, which has been federal law since 1968, is an underused tool for transforming neighborhoods into vibrant, well-resourced places where people can thrive.

Specifically, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) provision of the law establishes a holistic approach to dismantling barriers, building viable communities, and expanding equitable access to critical opportunities. Enforcing it and converting the words of fair housing into the practice of fair housing must become core to community economic development work. Our very survival depends on it.


The Cost of Inertia

A classic definition of insanity is to do the same thing and expect a different result. But for too long, community development practitioners have re-packaged the same inadequate approaches for expanding housing, economic, and other opportunities for people and are perplexed that these approaches have not moved the needle in achieving meaningful results.

That is not to say that the field has not done good things or must throw out all the tools developed over the years. But it does mean that we must create new approaches that will increase housing stability and security; eliminate housing discrimination; greatly expand the universe of affordable, safe housing in well-resourced communities; dismantle structural barriers to opportunity; and ensure that people can live in clean environments as well as access life-sustaining amenities like quality credit, living wage jobs, quality healthcare, and healthy foods.

By design, our housing, financial services, and economic systems are inequitable. This is because people and resources are highly segregated. Residential segregation is the bedrock of inequality because it establishes a construct for determining which communities will receive resources and which areas will be deprived of critical investments.

The National Fair Housing Alliance or NFHA, which I direct, in partnership with Zillow, recently released interesting research that highlights the drastic opportunity gap. The report crystalizes the daily experience of unequal treatment and lack of access that communities of color continue to face.

For example, people of color often lack easy access to healthy food. Data show that only eight percent of Black Americans in the US live in a census tract with a grocery store. Black, Latinx, and Native American communities have fewer healthcare facilities than predominately white communities. The research conducted by Zillow shows that in both Detroit and Oakland there are 93 percent fewer health service facilities in predominately Latinx communities as compared to predominately white communities.

When it comes to credit access, banks are sparsely located in Black, Latinx, and Native American communities as well as some Asian American neighborhoods. Banks are closing branches in high-income Black neighborhoods at a higher rate than they are closing branches in low-income non-Black areas.

Conversely non-traditional institutions like payday lenders and check cashers are hyper-concentrated in communities of color. As a result, Black Americans and Latinxs are disproportionately credit invisible, meaning, they lack a credit score, making it much more difficult to provide for their families.

There are grave disparities in the environmental and climate contexts as well. People of color are twice as likely to live in areas without potable water or proper sanitation.  Race is the most significant predictor of whether a person will live in a neighborhood with contaminated air, land, or water. More than half of the people who live within two miles of a waste facility are people of color. Communities of color are disproportionately impacted too by climate issues like natural disasters and ocean acidification.

We see the same patterns of disparities when it comes to education. Where you live impacts your child’s ability to attend a well-resourced school with expanded learning opportunities. School districts that primarily serve white students receive $23 billion more per year in funding than non-white districts despite serving the same number of children. Moreover, schools in predominately white communities have higher instances of veteran, highly qualified educators who are teaching in their field of expertise, whereas schools located in communities of color are more likely to have inexperienced educators and administrators, as well as teachers who are not teaching in their field of expertise.

In short, the spaces where we live determine many of our outcomes in life—whether we will thrive or flounder. The bias in our markets is not a bug but a feature. Our systems were built to be unfair, and they will continue to perpetuate inequality until we make systemic and cultural changes.

From the inception of this nation, our housing and finance policies were explicitly discriminatory. Our nation has passed thousands of laws and unjust policies including the Homestead grant system that explicitly denied opportunities for people of color; the Indian Removal Act that redistributed stolen Native American land; race-based zoning policies that restricted fair access to housing; and racially restrictive covenants that helped create segregation. Additionally, there are the racist policies implemented by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that institutionalized the system for redlining; unfair underwriting policies developed by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that formed the seeds for appraisal bias and inculcated the association between race and risk in our financial markets; public housing authorities that deliberately segregated housing facilities; and much more.

The US has spent trillions of dollars deliberately developing a deeply inequitable society and creating systems—like residential segregation, the dual credit market, exclusionary zoning ordinances, and environmental injustice—that still perpetuate disparities. But if we are to remain viable and thrive as a society, we cannot allow these challenges to remain.

It will take intentionality to overcome inequality. That means the community development field must center its programs, products, policies, and purpose on dismantling structures that produce unfair outcomes. It also means adopting systems that help people of color access credit, enjoy stable and affordable housing, and live in healthy, safe communities.


The Promise of Fair Housing

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 contains a unique provision—Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH)—that can help undo centuries of discrimination that created systemic barriers to critical opportunities. The AFFH provision requires any entity—including federal and state agencies, nonprofit organizations, housing industry providers, and municipalities—that receives federal funds for a housing or urban development purpose to implement all its programs and services in a manner that promotes and advances fair housing goals.

This means that entities cannot engage in any form of housing discrimination, create, or perpetuate segregation, or impede peoples’ access to critical housing opportunities. It also means that entities must affirmatively create and foster housing equity and work to ensure that every community has important amenities such as: clean land, air, and water, healthy food options, quality and affordable healthcare, businesses that provide living wage jobs, affordable and safe housing, and much more.

The AFFH provision requires entities—including cities, states, and housing providers—to conduct equity analyses to identify impediments that preclude people from accessing fair housing opportunities and living in healthy, well-resourced communities. This equity analysis must be conducted with input from impacted communities. The AFFH mandate then requires entities receiving federal funds to develop and implement meaningful solutions and strategies for overcoming fair housing barriers.

The challenge is that the AFFH provision does not implement itself. Through fair housing analyses, action plans can be developed in cities and states throughout the country that could be transformative in effect. While the Fair Housing Act passed in 1968, the AFFH provision has never been fully implemented. We must change our tactics and follow through to be effective.


Expanding on Fair Housing Principles Broadly to Transform Communities

Research reveals that by eliminating racial and other forms of inequality, we can improve economic outcomes throughout society. That begs the question: what types of fair housing strategies should we implement at the local, state, and national levels to be proactive and build the kind of society we want for ourselves and our families?

Among the areas where positive change can occur, and meaningful shifts are possible, are the following:

Support local fair housing organizations: These groups work to expand fair housing policies in local communities, provide services to victims of discrimination, and tackle systemic discriminatory practices.

Protect the environment and reduce climate impacts: Strategies should include analyzing climate change patterns and taking steps to limit global warming and protect vulnerable communities who too often bear the brunt of climate impacts. It should also include measures to clean the environment and eliminate air, land, and water pollutants. They can also incorporate cleaning up brownfields and increasing green spaces in “heat zones” or areas impacted by environmental injustice.

Change zoning rules to support inclusion: This can include making changes to exclusionary zoning ordinances or loosening zoning requirements to allow for the building and siting of Accessory Dwelling Units to increase the inventory of affordable housing. It can also include amending restrictive occupancy or zoning requirements—such as mandating that all residents in a residential housing dwelling be related by blood, or narrowly defining what constitutes a family—that restrict access to housing for people with disabilities and families with children.

Compel reinvestment by banks and insurance companies: Strategies should include negotiating with financial services companies to establish branches and agencies in underserved communities, or funding healthy food coops to support local farmers and bring life-sustaining foods to underserved areas. Strategies can also include working with local banks, fair housing agencies, and other stakeholders to address appraisal bias issues.

Build community wealth: Many community-based strategies that are shifting paradigms have been featured in NPQ, including using shared ownership models like housing co-ops, community land trusts, and other forms of shared equity housing that create long-term housing affordability and, in the process, increase both homeownership opportunities and housing stability.

Through the fair housing planning process, local community organizations can develop Special Purpose Credit Programs (SPCPs) to benefit economically disadvantaged groups that share a common characteristic such as race, national origin, or gender.

SPCPs can help circumvent a mainstream financial system prone to employing outdated credit scoring models and risk-based pricing systems (often plagued by algorithmic bias) that harm communities of color, people with disabilities, and other un(der)served groups. Properly designed, SPCPs can promote equity and inclusion, build wealth, and remove stubborn barriers that have contributed to financial inequities, housing instability, and residential segregation.

Employ targeted universalism: Targeting benefits to meet the needs of underserved groups is critically important, as john powell, among others, has advocated. That includes adopting measures to address the ways that physical structures such as roads, bridges, and highways can often perpetuate segregation, contribute to environmental hazards, or impede fair housing opportunities.

Prioritize first-generation homebuyers: Prioritizing first-generation, first-time homebuyers is another way to rethink how community development organizations create sustainable homeownership. NFHA and the Center for Responsible Lending developed a framework for creating down payment assistance programs for this population. Based on ground-breaking research from the Urban Institute, the program is designed to maximize impact for underserved communities of color and other groups who are disproportionately low-wealth and have historically been precluded from accessing credit and homeownership opportunities.

Promote educational justice: Strategies for addressing school segregation and educational disparities are critical to ensure that all schools are well-resourced and serve children equitably.


Equity in All Policies

To remain relevant, the community development field must build and foster opportunities for the people we serve that are life-sustaining and transformative. To do that, our strategies must be equity centered. We must create and implement wealth-building and paradigm-shifting solutions that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion.

It is not enough to tinker around the edges or make incremental tweaks to programs and services. We must be bold and visionary and focused on outcomes.

If we center our work on fair housing principles, we can reimagine how we build community and deliver meaningful solutions that tear down systemic barriers and create viable, strong communities. We can transform our neighborhoods in a way that ensures everyone can fairly access the rich resources our society has to offer and secure our mutual success in the process.