The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 20, 2013

Why fair housing matters

September 20, 2013

 

Today I’ll be part of a conversation about housing discrimination and segregation at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference. This is a topic of critical importance to our country’s future.

For much of the 20th century, discrimination blocked minorities from moving into white neighborhoods and produced high levels of residential segregation. Too often, blacks were excluded from neighborhoods with high-quality housing, schools, and other public services. Lenders have been less willing to invest in minority communities or have offered predatory loans and loan terms that stripped wealth from minority homeowners. Businesses have avoided these neighborhoods, leaving them without decent grocery stores and restaurants. And in many cases, the public sector has failed to deliver the quality schools, police protection, recreation facilities, and other services white neighborhoods take for granted.

Over the past three decades, black-white segregation has declined (although it remains high in many metropolitan areas) and immigration has transformed the country’s population, bringing greater racial and ethnic diversity to the neighborhoods of both blacks and whites. Consistent with this trend, racial and ethnic prejudice is generally waning, and attitudes toward residential diversity are more open today—especially among young people.

But we’ve still got a very long way to go. Racial prejudice has by no means disappeared from our communities and black-white segregation remains high in many metro areas. As our latest paired-testing study documents, minorities still face significant barriers to housing search, even when they are well-qualified as renters or homebuyers.

The high costs of neighborhood segregation

Neighborhood segregation has serious consequences. In fact, it’s a major contributor to the persistence of poverty and inequality in American society. Segregation created and now sustains neighborhoods of extreme poverty and distress that stunt the life chances of children. By definition, residential segregation separates our communities along racial and ethnic lines, limiting our chances of overcoming long-standing stereotypes and prejudices. And today, even middle-class minority neighborhoods have lower house price appreciation, fewer neighborhood amenities, lower-performing schools, and higher crime than white neighborhoods with comparable income levels. Volumes of research document the high costs of racial and ethnic segregation—not just for individuals but for society as a whole.

Although present-day housing discrimination denies minority homeseekers information and limits their housing options, it’s not the only factor sustaining segregation. Many other factors is at play, some of which reflect the legacy of past discrimination and legally enforced segregation. Information gaps, stereotypes and fears, local regulatory policies, and disparities in purchasing power all work together to perpetuate segregation today, even though many Americans—minority and white—say they want to live in more diverse neighborhoods.

Getting to fair housing requires a multi-pronged strategy

Meaningful reductions in neighborhood segregation and inequality can only be achieved if we tackle all these causal forces at the same time. The evidence argues for a multipronged strategy that includes vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination protections, but also goes further:

  • educating homeseekers (white as well as minority) about the availability and desirability of diverse neighborhoods;
  • reforming state and local land use regulations  to end exclusionary zoning, expand affordable housing development in all communities, and limit sprawl;
  • reinvesting in long-neglected minority neighborhoods to equalize the quality of services, resources, and amenities;
  • preserving affordable options in gentrifying neighborhoods; and
  • experimenting with new incentives that encourage and nurture stable diversity in city and suburban communities.

All these elements are essential if we want to achieve the fundamental goals of free and fair housing choice and healthy, opportunity-rich neighborhoods. 

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