The Dream Revisited

A Call to Action to Embrace and Enforce the AFFH Rule

by Angela Glover Blackwell | September 2015

As a Black girl growing up in St. Louis in the 1950s and 1960s, I experienced segregation first-hand. Though segregation controlled where I could live, learn, play, and pray, I was fortunate enough to live in a mixed-income Black neighborhood, with a good school, safe streets, prospering Black-owned businesses, and civic engagement. Many other Black St. Louis residents were not as fortunate. Discrimination forced them into very poor segregated neighborhoods that were cut off from opportunity. My experience illustrates how, even in the face of adversity (in this case, the demoralizing, destructive policy of segregation), all communities have the potential to thrive if they have access to certain basic ingredients for opportunity.

Segregation has long been abandoned as official federal policy, but this has not been enough to create greater opportunity for most communities of color. Instead, the footprint of segregation—and the selective government disinvestment that persisted for decades—are painfully visible today. Most of the economically-integrated Black neighborhoods of my childhood have disappeared, becoming areas of concentrated poverty. Today a child born in primarily Black north St. Louis can expect to die 16 years earlier than a child born in an affluent predominantly White suburb just one zip code away. This startling disparity, though not uncommon in many American cities, is a testament to the depth of the problem, and the complexity of the solutions required to address it.

That is why the newly-released AFFH Rule is so important. It recognizes that successful housing policy cannot exist in a vacuum; it must be part of a larger vision for connecting residents to opportunity.

Overcoming decades of discriminatory policies and practices that created and perpetuated today’s racial inequities requires housing policies that do more than seek to prevent ongoing segregation. We must also proactively counteract segregation’s legacy by linking struggling communities to the basic resources—quality housing, good schools, healthy environments, living-wage jobs—that any community needs to thrive.  The Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 was written with this intention in mind, but has repeatedly fallen short. The arrival of the AFFH Rule injects new awareness, tools, and momentum into fair housing policy—and it is crucial that the Federal government use its full authority to embrace and enforce the Rule.

Michael Allen’s main contention is that this Rule is “long on ‘carrots’, but painfully short on ‘sticks,’” necessitating grassroots mobilization on a community-by-community basis to police the rule locally where HUD will likely lack the resources to do so itself.  As a result, the new rule, in Allen’s words, leans towards “collaboration, rather than enforcement” and “plows new ground…but does not revolutionize the field.”

While Allen is undoubtedly right that HUD’s willingness to enforce this new Rule will be crucial to its success, the power of the spirit of collaboration cannot be underestimated.  The “stick”, while necessary, is not sufficient for enacting meaningful change if it is wielded without collaboration with local leaders and communities. Moreover, while the mere existence of the Rule alone may not revolutionize housing practice, the tools it provides to local leaders—the Assessment of Fair Housing and the local, disaggregated data—have immense potential to revolutionize those leaders’ ability to push for equity in housing, transportation, education, and other areas of community life. Without HUD as a careful watchdog, the AFFH Rule may fail to reform housing practice among reticent grantees (and civil rights litigation will likely play a key role here), but for the rising generation of local leaders who are eager to address inequity in their jurisdictions, this Rule can be a game-changer.

I have seen firsthand the potential of a collaborative AFFH process play out in rural towns, mid-sized and large cities, and tribal reservations across the country. In the five years preceding the release of the AFFH Rule, my organization worked with HUD and 74 regions to test out the assessment and data tools that have now been incorporated into the final rule. As in the current Rule, local leaders and advocates were provided with tools to measure which neighborhoods lacked key resources (proximity to transit, good schools, job opportunities, and clean air, etc.), and a framework through which these findings could be incorporated into city planning processes. In Seattle, this translated into a new regional food distribution hub in the Rainier Valley to bring new jobs and healthy food access to neighborhoods where both were lacking. In New Orleans the framework resulted in public transit service hours that would better meet the needs of lower-income shift workers in the health care and hospitality industries.

In these and other jurisdictions, the AFFH pilot served as the catalyst that spurred the assessments, discussion, and convening of local stakeholders. But the outcomes were only possible because of ongoing collaboration between local government, community leaders, private sector partners, and intermediaries, such as non-profits, local universities, and infrastructure agencies.  While the AFFH Rule requires that grantees take “meaningful actions…[to] foster inclusive communities,” it will always be these local partners, working in concert with HUD grantees, who help determine the nature of that meaningful action and provide the energy and dedication to put it in place.

Having watched these collaborations play out throughout the country, I am filled with hope that the next 50 years of the Fair Housing Act, fueled by this new Rule, will be revolutionary. Allen is not wrong to point out that the U.S. has made “precious little progress in ending discrimination” since 1968, but the AFFH rule is also being launched at a moment of great demographic, political, and economic change for America. In the 1960s, America was 15 percent people of color. Today it is 37 percent, and already children under five are majority of color. While the Fair Housing Act was born of a moral obligation to end discrimination, the AFFH Rule arrives at a time when the U.S. can no longer ignore the economic imperative that accompanies the moral one.  So long as people of color grow as a share of the workforce and population, America’s ability to build towns, cities, and regions where all children can reach their full potential will be a direct determinant of the success and prosperity of the entire nation. The AFFH Rule is a crucial lever that advocates, local government, philanthropists, and the private sector can pull to make that vision a reality. That is why my organization’s response to Allen’s call of “is anyone else with me?” is a resounding, enthusiastic, “Yes!”

Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink (@policylink), an equity-focused advocacy organization. 

More in Discussion 16: A New Approach to Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing