Metropolitan regions in the United States suffer from high levels of economic and racial segregation, partly as a result of racially discriminatory and exclusionary decisions made by local governments to prevent affordable housing construction (PDF) in places with greater shares of white and wealthy people.
Although some scholars, lawyers, and policymakers have fought to reverse these trends, such as by promoting affordable housing construction, people with low incomes and people of color still encounter discriminatory and segregating policies when trying to access communities with jobs and well-funded public services.
Housing segregation isn’t unique to the US, however, and US policymakers can look abroad for policy ideas and innovations. France’s Urban Solidarity and Renewal (SRU) law made a splash when it passed in 2000, instituting a national mandate for affordable housing availability. The SRU law’s goal was to reduce the segregation of low-income people in outlying suburban housing developments, or banlieues. As I show in new research published with the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, the SRU law has been successful in making the distribution of affordable housing more equitable in terms of evening the availability of subsidized units across municipalities, and it could be a model for the US.
How the French approach to affordable housing differs from America’s
In France, social housing, or housing permanently guaranteed by means testing to be affordable for families with low and moderate incomes, is managed by local government authorities, nonprofit organizations, or private-public partnerships. The SRU originally required that most urban municipalities ensure at least 20 percent of their overall housing stock was social housing by 2020. In a 2013 reform, this requirement was increased to 25 percent by 2025 for communities in which more than half of the French population lives.
Compared with how the US approaches expanding affordable housing access, the SRU law contrasts in several ways:
- Unlike inclusionary zoning programs implemented by US cities, the SRU law applies to all housing units citywide. Inclusionary zoning policies, which have produced relatively few units, only apply when developers build new housing. They do not apply to existing housing at the scale of entire municipalities.
- Unlike many “fair share” housing programs, the SRU law requires municipalities to be proactive, and the government enforces tough penalties. Policies in states like Connecticut and New Jersey allow developers to circumvent municipal zoning laws and build affordable housing in exclusionary cities. This encourages greater integration but is reliant on developer action (which has been limited historically) and enforces few penalties on municipalities with limited affordability. For decades in New Jersey, municipalities with few affordable units were able to skirt around guidelines, maintaining their exclusivity. The SRU law firmly places the burden of creating affordable housing on local governments, whose leaders have to find the means to construct new affordable units to achieve the 25 percent goal (including by leveraging the means of housing authorities they control) or risk the national government using eminent domain to seize land for affordable housing and imposing budgetary fines. These fines are large enough to reduce the ability of local governments to spend money on other initiatives.
- The SRU law is backed by considerable national funding. The US does not guarantee housing assistance for families with low incomes, and US affordable housing programs are consistently underfunded, which helps explain the high housing costs faced by US renters (PDF). In France, affordable housing funds are consistently available, and housing assistance can be used to help fund housing construction.
The SRU has reoriented the location of social housing, though challenges remain
The SRU law has reduced the spatial segregation of affordable housing in French metropolitan areas. In the decade before the law’s passage, municipalities increased their share of social housing by about 1.5 percentage points over 10 years on average. This increase occurred similarly for cities with very little social housing—and for cities with a lot of it. As a result, the spatial segregation of affordable units barely changed.
But in the roughly two decades after the law passed, conditions changed considerably. Communities with the lowest social housing levels in 1999 increased their affordable housing stock the most by 2017, shown highlighted in red on the following map. On the other hand, the cities with the most social housing in 1999 actually reduced their social housing share.
Between 1999 and 2017, the number of exclusionary municipalities in the Paris region—those with relatively low levels of social housing—declined, from 86 cities with less than 7 percent social housing to just 45, while cities with high levels of social housing also became less common. The number of municipalities with at least 35 percent social housing declined from 83 to 52. The law has successfully rebalanced the location of affordable housing to provide low- and moderate-income renters more living options.
Saint-Cloud and Bobigny, two suburbs of Paris, exemplify this change. Saint-Cloud, a suburb whose residents are predominantly high income, increased its social housing share by 4.2 percentage points whereas Bobigny, a suburb whose residents are predominantly low income, decreased its social housing share by 11.3 percentage points. Although Bobigny’s share of social housing is still about 32 percentage points higher than Saint-Cloud’s, the SRU law has demonstrably begun a process of rebalancing social housing locations.
This rebalancing sped up after the 2013 reform, which increased penalties for communities that did not demonstrate progress toward the SRU goal. Budgetary fines encouraged reluctant cities to begin making way for families with low and moderate incomes.
But evidence suggests a relatively large cohort of communities will not achieve the 25 percent goal by 2025. Saint-Cloud’s housing stock will likely remain unaffordable to many—whereas Bobigny will continue to have significantly more social housing than average. Work remains to be done.
Lessons for US policymakers seeking to desegregate communities
The SRU law has encouraged a more even distribution of social housing across municipalities, making high-income communities like Saint-Cloud—those closer to jobs and well-funded public services—more accessible to people with low- and moderate-incomes. And it has reduced the burden on cities like Bobigny, where families with low incomes have historically been concentrated. But translating a similar policy to a US context is a steeper hill, as American metropolitan areas feature higher levels of affordable housing concentration—and more exclusive communities—than their French counterparts.
Consider Connecticut, where federally supported affordable housing is not distributed evenly statewide. Four cities (Bridgeport, Hartford, New Haven, and New London) have more than 10 percent of their overall housing units guaranteed under federal programs. Although those cities house only 12 percent of the state’s households, 38 percent of its affordable housing units are located within them.
On the other hand, more than 170,000 households—11 percent of the state’s total—live in communities so exclusive they do not have a single federally guaranteed housing unit.
By instituting a similar regulation as the SRU law, states like Connecticut have the opportunity to increase access to affordable housing, reduce the number of exclusionary communities, and support opportunities for families with low and moderate incomes to move to places with jobs and well-funded public services. A mandate enforced by higher-level governments on municipalities can successfully redistribute affordable housing—especially if noncomplying cities face harsh penalties. Such an approach would not fully counter the racial segregation in US cities, so US regions should also identify ways to incorporate actions to reduce racial inequities.
The Urban Institute has the evidence to show what it will take to create a society where everyone has a fair shot at achieving their vision of success.