Here’s how we can build more inclusive neighborhoods

October 30, 2020

Dear Changemakers,

For more than 50 years, the Urban Institute has accumulated evidence about what makes for healthy communities that foster well-being and human potential, places offering safety and justice and a fair chance to everyone. We are not partisan, but that does not stop us from speaking out when we see—whether on the campaign trail or though policy moves—a vision of place and community inimical to almost all we have learned through our work.  

I am especially demoralized by the rallying cry to “defend our suburbs” from both growing racial and ethnic diversity and all-too-scarce affordable housing. I am infuriated by the false narratives, which I hear as calls to protect against “the other”—almost certainly people of color—and to further segregate our communities. More troubling still, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is codifying these narratives by systematically weakening the federal fair housing protections that help ensure all communities are strong, inclusive, and prosperous. For example, HUD recently eliminated a fair housing rule that used a data- and community-driven approach to address segregation and improve access to opportunity in communities that receive HUD funds. The decision is unsupported by the best evidence gathered by Urban and others about how all of us benefit when everyone—including people with lower incomes—has access to quality, affordable housing and communities rich with opportunity.

This is personal for me! I grew up in federally subsidized housing in an integrated community on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—a neighborhood almost unrecognizable today. In the early 1960s, many nearby brownstones and tenements were derelict and abandoned. Side streets housed working-class families living cheek-by-jowl with the more affluent families in prewar buildings overlooking Central and Riverside Parks. In contrast to the dominant model of slum clearance practiced in other areas of the city, my neighborhood was designated for a mix of low- and moderate-income housing and sweat equity investment. It served as a springboard for many of my playmates, as it did for my family and me. Sadly, its success for many years as a stable neighborhood, with an engaged community integrated by race and income, eventually attracted intense gentrification, as the city of New York became the epicenter of inequality.  

Still, it proves that creating this more inclusive environment is attainable and that these places could be preserved with intention. And, in a new Urban essay series called Opportunity for All, my colleagues and their partners offer bold ideas for federal support (and resources) to lift up local leaders and their community-led strategies to advance racial and economic equity—just as federal support helped create my neighborhood in the 1960s. Their ideas include the following:

  • a comprehensive affordable housing strategy to produce new affordable units, preserve existing inventory, and protect at-risk residents in gentrifying neighborhoods
  • a call for a new corporate compact for companies to invest in new streams of community development finance that would help ameliorate neighborhood disparities by race and income
  • a proposal to strengthen the federal government’s role in reducing segregation and boosting housing supply by incentivizing states to lift exclusionary zoning barriers
  • a proposal to take residential mobility to scale through the Housing Choice Voucher program (listen to our recent Critical Value podcast episode on these last two topics)

Whether you agree with them or not, these and other ideas in our essay series build on Urban’s learning from the past 50 years, and they provoke us to think beyond marginal changes to current policy, toward a renewed understanding of how the federal government can help build healthy and diverse communities that support well-being and opportunity.

I’m eager to hear your thoughts on the ideas we present in our series. And I invite you to tune in on Monday, November 2, for our next Evidence to Action conversation, where I’ll be joined by the Kresge Foundation’s Rip Rapson, Urban’s Jesse Jannetta, and the Urban Peace Institute’s Fernando Rejón, to discuss an important proposal from our Opportunity for All series: a plan for federal investment in community-driven public safety centered around a public health approach. You can register here.

Warmly,

Sarah

ICYMI: Take a moment to read my colleague Steven Brown’s blog post about how communities of color continue to suffer disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic fallout.