To the next HUD secretary: America can’t be great if we abandon fair housing

November 23, 2016

For many people, the American Dream means having an affordable place to live, in a safe community with good schools and access to decent jobs. But for too many African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians, that dream has been blocked. We hope that, if confirmed, Ben Carson will join a long line of Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretaries in trying to meet the national housing goal that “every American family should be able to afford a decent home in a suitable environment,” regardless of the color of their skin.

Racial segregation isn’t just an unfortunate accident or the natural outcome of an unfettered housing market. It has resulted from government policies.

A century ago, many cities adopted explicit zoning laws designating white and black neighborhoods, a practice that continued for at least a generation after it was first found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Private developers and real estate brokers then placed racial restrictive covenants in deeds that accomplished the same purpose.

New institutions designed to help America recover from the Depression, especially Federal Housing Administration insurance, promoted racially restrictive covenants, creating patterns of segregation that persist today.

Federal programs allowed states and cities to target predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods for demolition to make room for highways and urban renewal, relocating former residents to segregated public housing projects. Today, neighborhoods in cities and suburbs across the United States remain much more segregated than they would have been without government involvement.

And the consequences have been disastrous, not just for people of color, but also for the vitality of major American cities and for the country’s long-term prosperity. The segregation of neighborhoods along racial lines has fueled the geographic concentration of poverty and the severe distress of very high-poverty neighborhoods. Living in profoundly poor neighborhoods seriously undermines people’s well-being and long-term life chances.

Mountains of scholarly evidence convincingly show that the persistence of residential segregation sustains racial and ethnic inequality by stunting house price appreciation and hence, wealth accumulation among minority homeowners; undermining school quality and minority educational attainment; limiting employment opportunities and earnings for minority workers; and damaging the health of children and adults. 

These disparities ultimately hurt all of us by depressing property tax revenues, raising the costs of delivering public services, and undermining the competitiveness of the nation’s workforce, and constrain the vitality and economic performance of urban regions.

In recent decades, HUD has begun to encourage and support local efforts to right these wrongs. These efforts advance two critical objectives at the same time. They invest to restore opportunities in distressed neighborhoods: great schools, safe places to play, and convenient access to jobs.

But at the same time, they help communities break down barriers that exclude those of modest means from neighborhoods rich with opportunities, using data, guidance, and planning tools. HUD has also changed the way it administers its own programs to improve housing choice and make it easier for low-income families to move to opportunity-rich neighborhoods.

It would be a tragedy to turn back the clock now. We know that every year a child lives in a distressed neighborhood reduces their earnings as adults. Our country cannot be great if we squander the potential of any of our children.

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