This blog post is part of the series “Closing the Racial Gaps: Together We Can” which highlights efforts across the United States that show promise for closing racial opportunity gaps and creating a more equitable future.
Nearly 30 years ago I attended a community development conference focused on replacing decrepit housing in poor, mostly black, inner-city neighborhoods with attractive, affordable dwellings. The leaders in the room saw housing rehabilitation and new construction as the way to revitalize poor communities and improve the lives of the people who lived there. I was uncomfortable with the discussion and began asking: Why would community developers build housing in communities cut off from good schools, jobs, transportation, parks—the resources that people need to thrive and succeed? Is better housing the answer to inequality and injustice?
When I raised these issues, the response was not positive, but more like: “Who let her in?” And it was not just the mostly white community development leaders who pushed back. Black leaders and residents resisted my questioning the efficacy of focusing on rebuilding housing in severely depressed neighborhoods as the way to improve life outcomes. I decided to educate myself more about community development and find a better way to express my concern.
[T]o be equitable, housing must be more than affordable.
Safe, high-quality affordable housing is, of course, a basic human need. In 21st century America, it is unacceptable that something so important for health, comfort, financial security, and neighborhood stability remains out of reach for millions of low-income people and people of color. But decades of well-intentioned yet misguided community development efforts have shown that to be equitable, housing must be more than affordable. It must connect people to opportunities that enable them to participate, prosper, and achieve their full potential.
Community leaders and developers, philanthropists, investors, and leaders at all levels of government understand this today. The field is weaving together smart policies in housing, health, education, and economic development to create strong, resilient, inclusive, prosperous communities. This shift in focus—from building affordable housing to building equitable communities of opportunity with affordable housing as the centerpiece—is the most significant mark of progress in community development policy and practice in the past 25 years.
Unfortunately, the turnabout happened too slowly, and the lessons were learned at great cost to millions of people who deserved better. The nation invested billions of dollars in housing in inner-city neighborhoods stripped of opportunity, without making the concomitant commitment to transform those communities into places that offer residents prospects for upward mobility. Federal policy supported this myopic, ultimately harmful approach. While many community leaders recognized the limits of housing strategies divorced from catalytic, comprehensive, equitable development strategies, financing was not available for big, bold-stroke inner-city initiatives. Subsidies and tax credits were available for housing, period, so that’s what got built. Market conditions, limitations on federal funds and tax credits, and resistance from many suburbs steered most new affordable housing to poor neighborhoods.
As a result, patterns of neighborhood racial segregation and the concentration of poverty not only persisted but also expanded. These patterns mock the American dream. Economist Raj Chetty has shown that growing up in a region with greater opportunity and inclusion is critical in improving the odds for lifelong success. In today’s segregated America, the probability of advancing from the bottom fifth of the income ladder to the top fifth, the classic rags-to-riches trajectory, is only 7.5%, far lower than in other developed countries.
7% The probability of advancing from the bottom fifth of the income ladder to the top fifth in the United States.
The good news is that fresh ideas, new collaborations, and important policy changes are advancing affordable housing as a platform for connecting residents to opportunity. Private-public partnerships around the country are leveraging investments in housing, grocery stores, green infrastructure, public transit, and other resources to create healthy, opportunity-rich neighborhoods. The Obama Administration’s groundbreaking Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, last year’s Supreme Court ruling on exclusionary housing policies, and determined organizing by communities make this a historic moment to re-imagine housing infrastructure as a launchpad to opportunity and shared prosperity.
Structural racism is the biggest obstacle to seizing the moment. Re-thinking affordable housing without making a front-and-center commitment to eliminating the barriers of racism will get us nowhere. All too often the nation’s history of racial exclusion repeats itself. It’s happening today as families struggle to recover from the mortgage crisis and the Great Recession, as housing prices skyrocket in newly chic urban communities and housing insecurity grows, and as poor and working families, people of color especially, are displaced from revitalized neighborhoods and shunted again to under-invested communities, this time in aging suburbs.
Equity—just and fair inclusion into a society in which all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential—must be the primary driver of action and policy that integrates affordable housing, health, and inclusive economic development. With leadership rooted in equity, all communities can thrive. And all Americans can live in a place where they feel safe and connected to opportunities.