The Struggle for Equal Access to Neighborhood Resources and Opportunities Shifts to the State and Local Level

By Ingrid Gould Ellen and Justin Peter Steil


[The Dream Revisited] is probably the most intelligent and thoughtful read on segregation in recent years. Despite highlighting so many debates and differences, I consider it a hopeful and useful policy tool.

~Anne B. Shlay, Georgia State University, Journal of Urban Affairs

The struggle for equal and fair housing in the United States is a persistent issue despite efforts to eliminate discriminatory policies. To round out Black History Month, we are featuring The Dream Revisited: Contemporary Debates About Housing, Segregation, and Opportunity, edited by  Ingrid Gould Ellen and Justin Peter Steil. In this post, Ellen and Steil draw on their work to examine fair housing policies and what steps should come next.

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Black people in the United States have struggled to achieve racial equity in access to land, housing, and neighborhoods since at least the Reconstruction Era. Both economically successful Black communities, such as the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and efforts to advance racially integrated neighborhoods, such as Martin Luther King’s Open Housing campaign in Chicago, have historically been met with white supremacist violence.

Access to land and housing has been such a central part of the civil rights struggle because a substantial part of persistent racial inequality in the United States is rooted in neighborhoods. Segregation has resulted in large disparities in neighborhood resources and services and widely divergent neighborhood experiences. And these differences matter. Where you grow up in the United States still has a dramatic effect on the resources you have access to today, and on your future trajectory, from health to earnings.

Where you grow up in the United States still has a dramatic effect on the resources you have access to today, and on your future trajectory, from health to earnings.

The key question is what to do about these disparities in neighborhood resources. The national landscape has shifted dramatically since we began work on this book in 2013, but these policy debates are no less relevant. Indeed, they may be more so. Back in 2013, HUD was engaged in gathering research and evidence that would ultimately inform the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, the most significant federal fair housing regulatory action in a generation, and Westchester County was engaged in a protracted, but seemingly losing, battle over its obligations to affirmatively further fair housing as required under the law. HUD in 2013 also clarified the requirements victims of discrimination must meet to bring claims alleging that a policy has violated the Fair Housing Act because it has a discriminatory effect and there is a less discriminatory alternative policy available, known as the Disparate Effects Rule. And HUD was finalizing another rule to allow public housing authorities to vary the maximum rent by ZIP Code that families receiving Housing Choice Vouchers could pay, called the Small Area Fair Market Rents Rule, so that these families could rent housing in neighborhoods with higher performing schools or lower levels of violence if they chose. In short, a path forward to address persistent place-based inequalities in access to resources and opportunity seemed possible, after many decades of stymied progress. A mix of civil rights advocates, housing providers, and scholars discuss and debate the substance and merit of these policies in detail in The Dream Revisited.

Over the last few years, HUD officials have attempted to roll back or revise many of these Obama era rules. In 2017, HUD tried to withdraw the Small Area Fair Market Rents Rule, but it was stopped in the courts. In 2019, HUD proposed changes to the Disparate Effects Rule that would make disparate impact challenges to policies and practices far more difficult and would also shield businesses that use algorithms from being liable for the bias those algorithms create. The public submitted more than 4,000 comments, overwhelmingly critical of the proposal, and HUD has yet to release a final rule. In 2020, HUD proposed changes to the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule that diminish the attention to racial equity and disability rights in the original Rule and replace the support for locally generated and tailored goals with a nationwide push for local deregulation.

A mix of civil rights advocates, housing providers, and scholars discuss and debate the substance and merit of these policies in detail in The Dream Revisited.

The debates in The Dream Revisited describe some of the history of discrimination in housing that led to the Fair Housing Act and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule as well as present respectful disagreements over the best ways forward to advance equal access to opportunity for all individuals.

While federal officials work to narrow the scope and availability of federal civil rights claims in housing, at the state and local level many officials are adopting new strategies to advance fair housing. One notable example is shifting policies around single-family zoning. After the Supreme Court struck down explicit racial zoning in Buchanan v. Warley (1917), many real estate developers turned to racially restrictive covenants and many local governments turned to an alternative form of exclusionary zoning – prohibitions on building anything but single-family homes on large lots. These policies had a racially exclusionary effect and helped to keep black neighbors out of white jurisdictions. The City of Minneapolis recently changed its zoning code to prohibit single-family zoning, and it leaned into racial justice arguments when doing so. Proponents of the prohibition pointed directly to the role of single-family zoning in fostering segregation. City Council President Lisa Bender said that Minneapolis had “codified racial exclusion through zoning.” Proponents also pointed to the gaping divide between black and white homeownership rates (21% versus 59%). Meanwhile, the State of Oregon in 2019 required all municipalities with more than 10,000 people to allow duplexes in areas currently zoned for single-family homes.

The struggle for fair housing continues—where progress has slowed or reversed at the federal level, some state and local governments keep moving it forward in partnership with local civil rights and housing advocates.

State and local governments have also taken up the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule’s mission directly. The State of California enacted AB 686 in 2018 to incorporate the main provisions of the 2015 federal rule into state law. And cities such as New York City have continued pressing forward with the Assessments of Fair Housing that the 2015 federal rule had previously required, in New York’s case through the extensive process called “Where We Live NYC.”

The struggle for fair housing continues—where progress has slowed or reversed at the federal level, some state and local governments keep moving it forward in partnership with local civil rights and housing advocates. But legitimate questions remain about how these sub-national governments can best advance access to opportunity for all individuals and families, especially when the political priorities of state elected officials may lead state legislatures to preempt innovative local initiatives. We hope The Dream Revisited provides a useful foundation for these critical discussions and debates.


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