The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
July 8, 2015

Creating places of opportunity: HUD’s new data- and community-driven approach

Earlier today in Chicago, HUD Secretary Julián Castro and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the release of the long-anticipated “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” (AFFH) rule, which provides a powerful new set of tools to help local communities address segregation and improve access to opportunity.

This rule implements a long-standing provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which requires that HUD and state and local governments that receive HUD funds administer their programs in a way that overcomes barriers to housing choice and promotes more inclusive cities and regions.

Why is this rule important?

In recent years, there has been heightened interest from both researchers and policymakers in how geography and place affect a broad range of life outcomes—from educational attainment to future earnings to life expectancy itself. Research demonstrating the links between neighborhoods and economic mobility has become both more sophisticated and influential, and the federal government has launched a host of new place-based policies and programs aimed at building “ladders of opportunity.”

The resurgence of place in social policy perhaps reached a new height when President Obama declared that “a child’s course in life should not be determined by the zip code he’s born in, but by the strength of his work ethic and the scope of his dreams,” an aspiration that has been echoed not only by the administration’s top officials but also by state and local policymakers of all political stripes.

The broad appeal of this sentiment is understandable—after all, having zip code determine destiny flies in the face of deeply held values of fairness and opportunity in the United States. And having significant shares of our workforce living in segregated and disinvested places is, as we are increasingly coming to understand, bad for our economy.

But to date, responses to segregation and efforts to reduce neighborhood inequalities have been piecemeal and priorities at the federal, state, and local levels disjointed.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 anticipated a more proactive role for the federal government to play, primarily by using its investments more wisely and intentionally to promote integration. The AFFH requirement complements other, more familiar provisions of the act that prohibit discrimination against protected groups (including racial and ethnic minorities, families with children, and people with disabilities) in housing and lending.

For states and localities that receive HUD funding, the act goes a step further and expects that these funds be used to promote integrated residential patterns and increase neighborhood choice. It asks grantees to take affirmative steps to reduce the importance of place in shaping the lives of individuals and groups who face discrimination and constrained options in the housing markets—i.e., those who are “stuck” in places of concentrated disadvantage or “shut out” of places rich in opportunities.

For decades, this provision went largely unenforced. There are many reasons why, but certainly among them was that, unlike the prohibition on discrimination, the affirmative steps that localities should take to reduce segregation and the negative consequences of concentrated poverty are highly context-dependent.

In some places, effective strategies might involve preserving affordable housing in a gentrifying urban area where market pressures are squeezing out lower-income minority residents; in others, it might involve breaking down exclusionary barriers that prevent the construction of affordable housing in wealthier suburban areas. In another area, it might involve increasing the supply and flexibility of housing vouchers that allow low-income families to move to areas with better schools and employment prospects. Against such a complex array of interventions, any federal mandate risked being both unacceptably top-down and dangerously rigid.

The rule announced today manages this complexity by requiring local communities to develop their own solutions to segregation and establish their own goals for improving inclusion. It provides grantees with open data and new mapping tools to assist in this process and expects local governments to engage community members in setting fair housing priorities and goals that respond to local and regional needs. And it clarifies that the Fair Housing Act anticipates that a broad range of strategies may be necessary to overcome thorny challenges of residential segregation and racially concentrated poverty—no ready-made answers are offered nor cookie-cutter approaches required.

A step toward creating more inclusive communities

We commend this data- and community-driven approach to addressing segregation and expanding opportunity. Urban was founded in 1968—the same year the Fair Housing Act was signed—at a time of great unrest but also hope for new opportunity in America. Fifty years later, this rule builds on a body of Urban’s research, not the least of which is Marge Turner’s work investigating the benefits, barriers, and strategies to promoting neighborhood diversity.

For more than 20 years, researchers at Urban have highlighted and advanced the value of community- and data-driven solutions to challenges like segregation in cities across the country through the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership.  Going forward, we look forward to partnering with HUD, other researchers, community organizations and local leaders to ensure that data, evidence, and community participation become the foundations upon which we build more inclusive communities and realize the full potential of this important milestone for expanding opportunity in America.

Both authors contributed to the development of this rule while they worked at HUD.

Photo from Shutterstock

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