The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 7, 2015

Disarming the great affordable housing debate

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times on Wednesday, columnist Thomas Edsall opened with a pair of provocative questions:

If its goal is to move up the ladder, where should a poor family live? Should federal dollars go toward affordable housing within high-poverty neighborhoods, or should subsidies be used to move residents of impoverished communities into more upscale –and more resistant—sections of cities and suburbs with better schools and job opportunities?

Edsall treats these questions as interrelated. We, however, see them as distinct–the first question is critical, but the second question presents a false (and highly counterproductive) dichotomy.

At a very fundamental level, our answer to the first—where should a poor family live—is simple, and one we think Edsall would agree with. Poor families, like every other family, should live where they choose based on their family circumstances, needs, and aspirations. To move up the economic ladder, poor families (again, like other families) would prefer to live in neighborhoods that are safe and healthy, have good schools, and are located close to jobs and economic opportunities. These are the kinds of neighborhoods that support upward mobility for families and especially kids.

The reason that poor families often live in neighborhoods that lack these features has little to do with bad choices; rather, it has everything do with constrained choices.

Neighborhood choices for poor families may be constrained by a number of factors: lack of affordable housing in neighborhoods that have opportunity-enhancing amenities; lack of good information about neighborhood quality; a jobs-housing mismatch exacerbated by weak transportation connections; or outright discrimination. Frequently, it is a combination of these factors that traps poor families in neighborhoods of poverty and distress.

Edsall recognizes that choices for poor families are constrained, but curiously, he lays the blame for this solely on a “poverty housing industry.” He suggests that a “de facto alliance of multimillion-dollar nonprofit housing companies, city politicians, state and local housing authorities, and grass-roots organizations” conspire to keep poor families trapped in poverty by building more affordable housing in distressed areas isolated from economic opportunities.

This is inaccurate.  It misplaces blame and, in doing, not only makes it harder to root out the underlying causes of concentrated poverty, but also hinders the kind of collaboration that will be necessary to build lasting solutions.

In fact, there are plenty of well-meaning and effective community-led organizations that are successfully revitalizing distressed communities. Many are run and led by people who live within the community and want to make it a vibrant and opportunity-rich place to live. When combined with investments in safety and community and economic development, affordable housing can help turn around highly distressed neighborhoods. In areas that are gentrifying, affordable housing can prevent displacement of poor families and allow them to benefit from income mixing and new amenities in their neighborhood.

And, as the New York Times itself exposed earlier this week, affordable housing (even an aging public housing stock) provides a platform for poor families to advance in high-cost housing markets such as New York City.

The challenge is to balance these reinvestment approaches with efforts to create opportunities for poor people to live in wealthier communities. The evidence argues for pursuing both strategies, rather than pitting one against the other.

Which is what brings us to contest the premise of Edsall’s second question, which suggests that, to maximize the bang for our affordable housing buck, we must choose either reinvestment or mobility strategies. Today's problems of segregation and neighborhood distress were caused by both disinvestment from poor neighborhoods and exclusion of poor people from opportunity-rich neighborhoods. So the remedy has to include both reinvestment in urban neighborhoods where poor people live and opening up housing options at a regional scale.

Edsall cites three recent developments that he suggests “have forced the conflict over where to situate affordable housing.” However, all three actually argue, as we do, for a balanced approach.

Edsall specifically calls out the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project and HUD’s new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation as arming “the integrationist wing of the affordable housing sector.”

To the contrary, both the Supreme Court and HUD are adamant that we need a range of strategies, tailored to local conditions and contexts, in order to overcome persistent patterns of racial segregation and concentrated poverty.

Take a look at Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Texas case:

The [Fair Housing Act] does not decree a particular vision of urban development; and it does not put housing authorities and private developers in double bind of liability, subject to suit whether they choose to rejuvenate a city core or to promote new low-income housing in suburban communities . . . . From the standpoint of determining advantage or disadvantage to racial minorities, it seems difficult to say as a general matter that a decision to build low-income housing in a blighted inner-city neighborhood instead of a suburb is discriminatory, or vice versa.

The Fair Housing Act didn’t impose the “double-bind” that is built into Edsall’s second opening question. Nor has the court or HUD “armed” any side in a longstanding debate over the siting of affordable housing. They all recognize that these are tough decisions that need to be made at the local level, and that affordable housing developers, fair housing advocates, local governments, community residents, and employers all share an interest in seeing our cities and regions dismantle segregation and reduce concentrated poverty.

To get there, let’s start by laying down arms and placing choice back at the center of our strategies.

As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Scholars are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.

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Jamila Williams, 3, runs down a walkway at Jordan Downs housing project in the Watts section of Los Angeles, Thursday, June 11, 2009. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)