A proposed congressional bill to protect and empower local decisionmaking could end up limiting access to valuable federal data that local governments rely on to make informed decisions across many policy issues. Such a move could be a significant step backward for evidence-based policymaking.
The Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017 takes aim at the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule and would prevent any substantially similar rules in the future.
The proposed legislation also includes language to eliminate the collection of local housing data, stating that “no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”
Local governments depend on federal data to inform local work. Local governments use geospatial data on community racial disparities and access to affordable housing to protect constituents from predatory lending and redlining, improve housing conditions, identify gaps in transportation networks, and understand access to food sources.
Federal data can also be combined with local data to capture a holistic view of neighborhood conditions and change and support regional efforts to better plan for growth and equity. Efforts that limit access to federal data can harm the local decisionmakers the bill aims to protect.
Reducing the availability of federal data also counters recent bipartisan efforts to expand how data and evidence can inform the policymaking process. The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, jointly driven by House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic senator Patty Murray, is charged with developing “a strategy for increasing the availability and use of data in order to build evidence about government programs, while protecting privacy and confidentiality.”
The commission demonstrates emerging bipartisan consensus about the importance of using data to support effective governance and target resources to programs that have shown evidence of success. Policymakers from across the ideological spectrum have spoken of the importance of empowering local leaders to flexibly apply federal funding to meet their communities’ needs, rather than relying on top-down solutions. Limiting access to federal data would harm both these goals.
The AFFH rule, as Urban Institute researchers have written, implements a key provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by providing local communities tools to improve access to opportunity and reduce segregation. The HUD rule makes local governments responsible for identifying fair housing issues and coming up with locally tailored solutions, and it rejects a one-size-fits-all model. The bill targets HUD’s online AFFH Data and Mapping Tool, which enables local governments to quickly pull up uniform and accessible data on issues like affordable housing and access to low-cost transportation.
The robust network of federal data should be made as available as possible—while protecting privacy and security—to the local governments that benefit from and depend on it.