The blog of the Urban Institute
January 26, 2021

Facing the Facts About Housing Injustice Will Help Pave the Way to Racial Equity

In a memorandum released earlier today, President Biden acknowledged what research and evidence have indisputably shown: the federal government has played a central role in creating and perpetuating today’s patterns of racial segregation, neighborhood disinvestment, housing insecurity, and racial wealth gaps. Moreover, these patterns have terrible consequences in that they fuel inequities in health, education, policing, and employment.

Such an acknowledgment is both historic and consequential. No president has so explicitly recognized the federal government’s culpability or taken official action to redress the consequences of its actions. And although leaders in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies (PDF) have previously recognized federal government’s role in creating racial inequity and injustice, progress in addressing ongoing harms has been halting at best.

For too long, the federal government ignored or denied its obligation to redress the harms of racist policies even despite an explicit mandate in the Fair Housing Act to take “affirmative” steps to address the ongoing harms of discrimination, segregation, and exclusion.  Over the past four years, the federal government took aggressive steps to gut fair housing protections, including erasing race (and accountability) from HUD’s mandate to affirmatively further fair housing.

Evidence can help chart the path forward

President Biden’s new memorandum and last week’s executive order on advancing racial equity recognize that efforts to erase the nation’s history of racism can’t eliminate the problems and inequities that racism brought about. Instead, facing the facts about our history is a necessary step toward long-overdue healing and provides the foundation for urgently needed policy changes.

In recent years, Urban Institute research has provided the evidence behind six steps the federal government could take to achieve the goals outlined in the presidential memorandum, redress our nation's history of discriminatory housing policies, and achieve a more prosperous and equitable future.

  1. Vigorously enforce the long-neglected statutory mandate to affirmatively further fair housing by requiring local and state governments to develop plans that restore resources and opportunities in historically disinvested neighborhoods and that expand access to exclusive neighborhoods.
  2. Expand neighborhood choice by documenting voucher discrimination and identifying ways to enhance the Housing Choice Voucher Program as a tool to help families live in opportunity-rich neighborhoods.
  3. Break down exclusionary barriers to housing production and support local inclusionary housing policies by creating incentives for states and localities to reform zoning and land-use regulations.
  4. Collect and share disaggregated data so that needs can be accurately identified and progress toward closing equity gaps can be systematically evaluated.
  5. Confront emerging and evolving forms of discrimination in today’s housing market and reaffirm and enforce the disparate impact standard, which recognizes that groups protected under the Fair Housing Act can experience discrimination through policies and practices even if no evidence exists of an intention to discriminate.
  6. Close the racial wealth gap by supporting homeownership and home equity for households of color.

Acknowledging the damage done by past federal policies and committing to healing are welcome first steps on the long and difficult path ahead toward long-overdue housing justice. Following the evidence will be the next.

A redlining map of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, produced by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation used to appraise home values and neighborhoods. Source: National Archives.

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