With the trend toward urbanization increasingly pricing families out of housing in cities, one solution to the problem would be to simply construct more affordable multifamily housing stock in the suburbs—particularly in those communities bordering urban employment areas. Despite the passage of the Fair Housing Act nearly 50 years ago, many suburban communities remain resistant to allowing multifamily housing—particularly the “affordable” variety—to be constructed in their cities and towns.
“What we’ve been trying to do for the last 50 years with the Fair Housing Act is to undo the very twisted knot of anywhere between 60 and 75 years of very intensive, layered, systemic pro-segregation policy—from racial zoning, to racial covenants, to redlining, to urban renewal’s impacts, and the public housing programs and some of those missteps . . . to more contemporary issues that we’re dealing with such as reverse redlining and predatory lending,” said Jason Reece, director of research at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race & Ethnicity at Ohio State University, speaking at the recent ULI Housing Opportunity 2016 Conference. “And we have a lot of work to do.”
Reese was joined by Gustavo Velasquez, assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Judi Barrett, director of municipal services for RKG Associates Inc., a real estate, land use, and economic development consulting firm. The panel was moderated by Ali Solis, senior vice president of advocacy and external affairs for Enterprise Community Partners Inc.
Solis set the stage for the discussion by citing recent research by Stanford University economist Raj Chetty (conducted while he was at Harvard in 2015) that provided “quantifiable evidence that where you live—the city, the place that you grow up in—could have a very dramatic impact on the rest of your life,” said Solis, who added that each year a child spends in concentrated poverty—as opposed to a lower-poverty neighborhood with more opportunities—decreases the chances of going to college, increases the chance of becoming a single parent, and decreases the expected earnings as an adult by more than 30 percent.
“Unfortunately, the number of Americans [who] are living in highly concentrated neighborhoods of poverty—often without access to good jobs or good schools and other opportunities—has really doubled since 2000, while the number of neighborhoods that have been identified as ‘high poverty’ have increased by 75 percent,” she added.
In order to help reverse this trend, HUD released a final version of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule in July of 2015, “to equip communities that receive HUD funding with the data and tools that will help them to meet longstanding fair housing obligations in their use of HUD funds.” On the same day as the panel discussion, U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah was attempting to add an amendment to the Senate Transportation and HUD appropriations bill that would have defunded AFFH (the amendment was defeated). Velasquez told the crowd that Lee and opponents of AFFH “keep making this zoning argument that AFFH is about rezoning or imposing zoning provisions on local jurisdictions,” and added that much of the opposition to AFFH is based on a “misconstrued, misguided argument that is not really what the rule is attempting to do.” He emphasized that the agency is presenting local communities a “planned framework” that creates uniformity and consistency across the country for local jurisdictions to assess fair housing goals, but that those local jurisdictions are the ones that will have full latitude and authority to select what those goals are.
Velasquez also highlighted a half-dozen issues that HUD regularly sees “at the intersection of suburbia and fair housing.” He cited residency preferences (for government employees); zoning and land use policies (i.e., restrictions on multifamily housing in a community); political and community resistance to the creation of affordable housing; place-based strategies outside the urban core; the siting of affordable housing; and the lack of mobility of low- and moderate-income persons as major roadblocks.
Much of Barrett’s presentation focused on the well documented, archaic, and inefficient planning and zoning laws in the commonwealth of Massachusetts that derail any real form of regional strategy, but she also spoke to the underlying cause of much of what she believes is the real impediment to affordable housing in the suburbs.
“What I see over and over and over again in my work in the suburbs is this tremendous propensity to want to preserve and perpetuate sameness,” Barrett said. “There is a tremendous investment in these communities among the people who live in them and a tremendous fear that somehow that investment is going to be compromised by the introduction of multifamily housing and ‘those people.’ And when you finally name the elephant in the room—it’s about race.”