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February 17, 2016

Evaluating Hillary Clinton’s plan to connect housing to opportunity

February 17, 2016

This post was originally published on Elevating the 2016 Debate

In a speech on ending systemic racism yesterday in Harlem, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton presented a $125 billion plan to assist poor and minority communities, 11 days before the South Carolina primary.

Race continues to be an important topic in this campaign, especially on the Democratic side, as Secretary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders vie for black primary voters. However, what is somewhat novel about Clinton’s plan is that she infuses issues of affordable housing and spatial segregation into her plan to address racial inequalities in the United States. As issues that are at the center of much of the Urban Institute’s research, and core concerns for local leaders across the nation, we decided to take a closer look.

Past Urban Institute research demonstrates that despite some gains in reducing racial segregation overall in recent decades, the tight connection between race, place, and disadvantage in the United States stubbornly persists. Racially concentrated poverty has increased since 2000 and African Americans and Latinos have borne the brunt of that increase.

A quarter of African Americans in US metros live in census tracts with poverty rates above 30 percent, as do about one in six Latinos. Only 1 out of every 25 non-Hispanic whites lives in a high-poverty tract. These spatial patterns have profound implications for economic opportunity for people of color. Conditions in high-poverty and severely distressed neighborhoods undermine both the quality of daily life and the long-term life chances of parents and children.

So what strategies are most effective at disentangling the effects of place on opportunities for communities of color, particularly those living in areas of concentrated poverty? And does Clinton’s plan move us along that path? 

Marge Turner has argued for a "place-conscious" approach that recognizes the importance of place and tackles the particular challenges of distressed neighborhoods, but is also attuned to region-wide prospects to improve access to opportunities for families. Clinton’s plan seems to embrace such an approach, allocating resources to both revitalize distressed communities and break down barriers to affordable housing in places where economic opportunities are more abundant. 

To revitalize distressed communities, the Clinton plan focuses on removing physical decay and blighted properties (both residential and commercial) that stunt prospects for neighborhood renewal. From an economic opportunity standpoint, this may be necessary but not sufficient to address place-based inequalities. Research shows that removing market-crippling blighted properties can increase values for surrounding properties and help stabilize neighborhoods. But blight removal alone will not turn a neighborhood around—it needs to be complemented by investments in quality housing, local businesses, decent schools, and safe public spaces

The Clinton plan also seeks to overcome barriers that low-income families and people of color face in moving to neighborhoods with more jobs and better schools, primarily through two mechanisms. First, it proposes to "expand choices" for families that receive housing vouchers, a goal that research suggests can have profound effects on economic outcomes. Helping families leave high-crime, dangerous neighborhoods can translate into immediate improvements in their lives. And a recent Harvard study shows how moves to low-poverty neighborhoods can significantly improve economic mobility, especially for young children.

The plan is short on details as to what reforms to the housing voucher program Clinton would make to improve housing choice, but she can look to current experiments within HUD and Urban Institute’s own proposals for both inspiration and evidence.

Perhaps the most impactful—and contentious—strategy to improve housing opportunity for communities of color is buried at the end of the plan: "easing local barriers" to housing construction that reduce supply and drive up housing costs. 

Exclusionary zoning by wealthy suburban communities and tight land use regulations in cities with the highest levels of job growth drive racial and economic inequalities both within and across regions. Easing these local regulations could go far in opening up economic opportunities for communities of color in multiple ways—preventing displacement, reducing rent burdens, and allowing greater mobility and access to job centers

However, the federal government has traditionally played a relatively minor role in shaping local land use laws and regulations, which are generally the domain of states and local governments. Implementing this strategy will require creativity and new forms of partnership between federal and local actors. The Clinton plan suggests one such mechanism for this: prioritizing federal funding to communities that take steps to build affordable rental housing near jobs.

HUD’s recent effort to provide data and guidance to communities to develop fair housing plans under the new "Affirmatively Further Fair Housing" rule is another important tool. Combining broad community engagement to identify barriers to creating affordable housing opportunities in healthy and vibrant neighborhoods with federal support for affirmative steps to lift those barriers may prove a potent—but still largely untested—strategy for addressing the spatial dimensions of racial inequalities in the United States.

2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in New York on 'breaking down barriers for African Americans', and her agenda to combat 'systemic racism' and build 'ladders of economic opportunity for African American families at a press conference in Harlem on February 16, 2016. Photo by Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

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