The Dream Revisited

The Need for a Balanced Approach to Fair Housing

by Michael Bodaken, Ellen Lurie Hoffman | January 2016

We appreciate Michael Allen’s thoughts on the need for local organizing, education, and capacity building to ensure that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule is implemented and enforced appropriately.  We agree that local communities should identify barriers to fair housing and devise strategies to ensure that all residents can choose the housing that is best for themselves and their families.

Like Michael, we welcomed the Supreme Court’s milestone ruling upholding the use of disparate impact as a legal argument in fair housing cases and HUD’s release of the AFFH rule to help communities meet fair housing obligations.  The National Housing Trust (NHT) works in partnership with civil rights organizations to support and protect fair housing laws.  This summer, we joined other advocates in opposing attempts in Congress to block funding necessary to implement the AFFH rule and we will continue to urge Congress to fully fund its implementation.

As we reflect upon Michael’s comments about enforcing the AFFH rule, we urge careful consideration of precisely what we are enforcing.  Many fair housing advocates promote mobility policies to help low-income minorities move out of inner cities and resettle in more affluent suburban communities.  Mobility strategies are an indispensable tool for providing opportunity, but they are not sufficient to meet the needs of all residents of distressed urban communities.  Not all of these families can be relocated to affluent communities and many would prefer not to leave their neighborhoods.  We favor a “mobility plus” strategy, providing residents the choice to move while also working with other residents to transform distressed urban neighborhoods into diverse, high-opportunity communities with access to transit and jobs.

We believe preserving affordable housing is the obvious first step to addressing our nation’s affordable rental housing crisis.  For every new affordable apartment created, two are lost due to deterioration, abandonment or conversion to more expensive housing.  Without preserving existing affordable housing, we fall two steps back for every step we take forward.  In distressed neighborhoods, preserving affordable housing can catalyze the revitalization of an entire community.  Saving decent, affordable housing means savings a critical community asset.  It also signals the reversal of years of neglect and disinvestment and can spark the public-private investment that is essential for community revitalization.

Both the Supreme Court decision and HUD’s AFFH rule uphold a “balanced approach” to fair housing, which embraces both mobility strategies and housing preservation and community revitalization.  Indeed, HUD’s AFFH final rule specifically embraces “a balanced approach to fair housing.”  The rule specifically highlights the value of preserving affordable housing in “high poverty” neighborhoods: “HUD’s rule recognizes the role of place-based strategies, including economic development to improve conditions in high poverty neighborhoods, as well as preservation of the existing affordable housing stock, including HUD-assisted housing, to help respond to the overwhelming need for affordable housing.”  The rule also provides, “A program participant’s strategies and actions…may include various activities…including…targeted investment in neighborhood revitalization or stabilization; preservation or rehabilitation of existing affordable housing; promoting greater housing choice within or outside of areas of concentrated poverty and greater access to areas of high opportunity; and improving community assets such as quality schools, employment, and transportation.”

NHT has worked for decades to renovate and preserve existing affordable rental homes so that low-income families can live in integrated neighborhoods with access to opportunities, wherever they reside.  In wealthier suburbs or high cost cities, we protect affordable housing that is at risk of losing its affordability due to gentrification.  Thus, in Washington, D.C., we worked with low-income tenants in an affluent area to preserve their homes near million dollar condos.  

In other instances, we have engaged with residents, local governments, and community-based organizations to preserve affordable housing and invest in neighborhoods that have experienced disinvestment and neglect.  Our investments have helped to maintain long-term affordability for affordable properties, improved the energy efficiency and safety of these buildings, and created a healthier environment for low-income residents.  We have developed after school tutoring programs for resident children, built on-site computer labs to allow parents to improve their technological literacy and pursue education and job training, and planted gardens to allow residents to grow and enjoy healthy food.  

Instead of abandoning the communities where low-income families live, we strive to transform them into areas of opportunity.  These communities have value and as fair housing advocates, we cannot simply promote efforts to move people out.  Many residents want to remain in their neighborhoods.  NHT is dedicated to preserving their affordable homes and thereby helping to improve the communities in which they exist.   

We strongly support distributing federal resources in a manner that allows low-income people to make housing choices that are best for themselves and their families, to increase their access to opportunity.  Federal, state and local governments agree with this balanced approach to housing investment.

Let’s create effective solutions together. 

Michael Bodaken is the President of the National Housing Trust. He tweets @michaelbodaken.

Ellen Lurie Hoffman is the Federal Policy Director of the National Housing Trust.

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