Unfair “Fair Housing”

Howard Husock, City Journal, Spring 2016

A divisive issue has arisen in Hillary Clinton’s tony adopted hometown of Chappaqua (population 1,400), in New York’s Westchester County: affordable housing–specifically, whether to permit the construction of subsidized apartments for low-income families near the train station. In 2009, the county reached a settlement with the federal government of a lawsuit alleging that it had failed to remove racial and income-related barriers for poor residents seeking better housing–in effect, that it had discriminated. Since then, HUD has doggedly pushed Westchester, including its wealthy localities, to finance hundreds of new units of subsidized housing and to market them aggressively, particularly to minorities.

What’s at stake goes beyond Westchester County. Through its expansive “fair housing” policies, the Obama administration wants to ensure that poor minorities, who have historically clustered in low-income urban neighborhoods, can avail themselves of the better schools and greater safety of high-income suburban locales. As HUD puts it: “No child’s ZIP code should determine her opportunity to achieve.” Support for “deconcentrating poverty”–that is, reducing the percentage of poor people within specific localities by relocating them elsewhere–has gained additional momentum from a recent Supreme Court decision and new social-science research.

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{snip} Enter the Obama administration, with an approach that inverts the traditional approach to subsidized housing–seeing relocation of still-poor families to wealthier areas as a key to economic advancement and favoring housing subsidies for these purposes. In its recently issued rule for “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” the administration has formalized this goal:

HUD will provide publicly open data for grantees to use to assess the state of fair housing within their communities and to set locally-determined priorities and goals. . . . HUD will provide open data to grantees and the public on patterns of integration and segregation, racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, disproportionate housing needs, and disparities in access to opportunity. This improved approach provides a better mechanism for HUD grantees to build fair housing goals into their existing community development and housing planning processes.

Recent research, at least at first glance, suggests that neighborhood segregation is still holding blacks back. {snip}

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On closer inspection, though, it isn’t so clear what story the Harvard and Stanford studies are telling. The Stanford study doesn’t answer a key question: Are people self-segregating? Nothing in its findings precludes the possibility that some minority households, whatever their income, simply choose to live in predominantly minority neighborhoods. That may, of course, reflect their view of likely white animosity, but it may also suggest their sense of where they will have more in common with neighbors. Nor do the findings rule out that a family may prefer not to move, even if HUD thinks that doing so is in its best interest. {snip}

The Harvard study also merits skepticism, especially because of its call for a dramatic expansion of “deconcentration” programs. In fact, the United States already has broadly deconcentrated poverty: some 77 percent of poor black families live in nonpoor neighborhoods, according to Rutgers public-policy professor Paul Jagowski. (He also finds that the chance that a low-income white family will live in a high-poverty neighborhood has, since 2000, increased more than that for black families.) A disproportionate rate of black poverty has persisted, however. This is not to dismiss entirely the Harvard findings on the benefits that young black children enjoyed from living in wealthier areas, but data from a limited sample shouldn’t be given equal weight with the much broader evidence that relocation is not a silver bullet for black advancement.

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Based on their incomes, African-Americans are not underrepresented in Westchester County, even in the wealthiest communities. As of the 2000 census, Scarsdale was 1.5 percent black; Pound Ridge, 1.2 percent. That may sound low, but there simply aren’t many affluent blacks in the entire county. Only 2 percent of black households in Westchester earned more than $200,000 in 2000–a total of 911 families–compared with 12.6 percent of white households. What such figures don’t show is any intent to exclude on the basis of race–the fundamental violation of fair housing, at least in its traditional interpretation.

hat interpretation has come under fire. In a June 2015 decision, the Supreme Court effectively affirmed HUD’s right to interpret fair housing far more broadly. By a 5-4 vote, the Court agreed with a group called the Inclusive Communities Project that the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs had reinforced “segregated housing patterns by allocating too many tax credits to housing in predominantly black inner-city areas and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods.” The case stemmed not from private-housing discrimination but from the application of the low-income housing tax credit, a government-subsidy program that supports the construction of low-cost rental units. Texas had chosen to subsidize more units in poorer neighborhoods rather than fewer units in affluent, more costly neighborhoods–as would inevitably be the case any time HUD pushed to locate subsidized units in wealthier suburbs, where property is more expensive. Under the Court’s ruling, even if the state were not acting explicitly to deny individual households the right to rent or buy in nonminority communities, the “disparate impact” of its policy supported the case for change.

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