Urban America Forward | “Fair Housing and Neighborhood Opportunity”

Although the right to housing is not recognized as a fundamental right in the United States, it is a fundamental need. Housing provides the foundation for important outcomes in education, health, and safety. Residential segregation by race and income continues to be prevalent in our country. Low-income African-American and Latino residents tend to remain stuck in disadvantaged neighborhoods that constrain their access to resources and potential for social and economic mobility. Therefore, undoing persistent racial and economic segregation remains at the forefront of a civil rights agenda. A contemporary urban civil rights agenda to address fair housing and neighborhood opportunity must address the lack of affordable housing, gentrification, relocation and reconcentration of poverty, and the rising demand for rental housing.

  • Racial discrimination in housing persists in the form of steering and withheld information. For example, the Urban Institute finds that African-American homebuyers are informed of 17 percent fewer units and renters are informed of 11 percent fewer units than their white counterparts.[1]
  • As a nation, we are in the midst of an affordability crisis. Among U.S. households, 11.8 million pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent.[2] Minorities are disproportionately affected. The affordability gap is growing. Projections are that the demand for rental housing will dramatically outpace supply during the next 15 years.[3]
  • Since 2000, the suburbs have been home to the fastest growing and largest poor populations in the country. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of suburban poor grew by 66 percent, which was more than twice the pace of growth that occurred in big cities. [4] Many of these communities lack or have limited services, transit, social safety nets, private and public resources, or capacity to respond the needs their communities.

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

Gentrification, displacement, and housing affordability are central urban challenges. Low-income, minority urban residents are dramatically affected by displacement from the inner city as a result of gentrification. A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia refers to gentrification as the term “used to describe neighborhood changes that are characterized by the influx of new residents of a higher socioeconomic status relative to incumbent residents and rising housing values.”[5] This complex issue, with its ties to racially discriminatory policies and programs, will continue to affect housing choice in urban America as economic, political, and cultural forces drive the return of affluent residents to the city.

Addressing racial and economic segregation should remain at the forefront of the Urban Civil Rights agenda. Race must be an explicit component of housing policy; much of our current policy focuses on moving to opportunity or deconcentrating poverty but is silent on the issue of race.

The suburban infrastructure is lacking in its ability to address growing poverty. Created for white working-class families in a post-industrial era, many inner-ring suburbs are fiscally strained and lack the civic, social service, and community organizing infrastructure for empowering their increasingly disadvantaged minority populations.

The political will for fair housing polices will be furthered by connecting this movement to others. The cultural shift required to truly dismantle segregation will occur when the fair housing movement is connected to other movements with political traction, such as health equity and income equality. Evidence of the powerful impact of housing on the health of low-income children and families leaving high-poverty communities for more integrated settings is significant. Raj Chetty’s work demonstrates that children who move at a young age from high-poverty to low-poverty environments have increased earnings as adults, higher rates of marriage, and higher rates of college attendance.[6]

Housing mobility counseling is essential. The Housing Choice Voucher program, our largest low-income housing program, offers families the option to move to low-poverty areas. However, housing mobility counseling is essential in enabling families to access the resources and opportunities available in low-poverty communities.

Policy Recommendations

Promote “source of income” anti-discrimination laws. Thirteen states have source of income anti-discrimination laws that make it illegal for landlords to discriminate against voucher recipients solely on the basis of their holding a voucher. Studies show that jurisdictions with such laws have higher rates of voucher use.[7]

Challenge segregation and gentrification on the basis of disparate impact. When states and localities displace communities, gentrification may be litigated under civil rights law. In 2015, the Supreme Court reaffirmed in The Inclusive Communities Project, (ICP) Inc., v. Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs the intent of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to address segregation resulting from government and private policies even where discriminatory intent could not be proved.

Encourage regional collaboration to increase the pool of affordable housing. Municipal agencies, and housing authorities specifically, should embrace collaborative regional metropolitan approaches to create pools of subsidies to meet the need for affordable housing in opportunity areas and enhance the livability of low-income neighborhoods. Federal portability policy should not result in smaller allocations of other resources such as community development block grant funding.[8]

Use AFFH to influence state and local housing plans. In 2015, HUD announced the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule—a legal principle at the heart of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The AFFH Rule codifies the notion that HUD and its grantees are required not just to avoid discrimination, but to affirmatively dismantle segregation and promote racially integrated communities. All Public Housing Authorities are required to conduct an Assessment of Fair Housing that is informed by meaningful community participation. They are specifically required to conduct outreach to populations who have historically experienced exclusion, including racial and ethnic minorities, limited English proficient (LEP) persons, and persons with disabilities, to solicit input on fair housing issues and fair housing goals.[9]

Models and Tactics

Civil Rights testing. Civil Rights testing involves individuals posing as prospective renters, home buyers, and job applicants to gather information and uncover unlawful discrimination. Such testing enables advocates to develop the data sets necessary to enforce the Fair Housing Act through litigation.

Minneapolis and Seattle’s equitable growth strategies. Equitable development depends on removing structural impediments to inclusion. In 2012, Minneapolis became the first city to adopt a resolution promoting racial equity in employment. The resolution declares that institutional racism “is a primary reason for unemployment disparities” and requires the city to take action to ensure that people of color have the opportunity to secure government jobs, promotions, and contracts.[10]

Collective impact.  More than 200 cities and counties are employing collective impact models and working across sectors to improve workforce development. These collaborations present an opportunity to add equitable growth and prevention of displacement through gentrification as specific regional goals.



[1] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Housing Discrimination against Racial and Ethnic Minorities” (Washington, DC: HUD, 2012), http://www.huduser.gov/portal/Publications/pdf/HUD-514_HDS2012.pdf.

[2] A. Jackabovics et al., “Projecting Trends in Severely Cost-Burdened Renters,” (Washington, DC:  Enterprise, 2015), http://www.enterprisecommunity.com/resources/ResourceDetails?ID=0100886#sthash.fKjSRHgO.dpuf.

[3] L. Goodman et al., “We Are Not Prepared for the Growth in Rental Demand.” Urban Wire blog post (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, June 24, 2015), http://www.urban.org/urban-wire/we-are-not-prepared-growth-rental-demand.

[4] A Berube and E Kneebone, “America's Shifting Suburban Battlegrounds” (Washington, DC: Brookings Institute, Aug. 16, 2013),  http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2013/08/16-suburban-poverty-berube-kneebone

[5] L. Ding et al., “Gentrification and Residential Mobility in Philadelphia.” Discussion paper. (Philadelphia: Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, 2015), p. 1, https://www.philadelphiafed.org/community-development/publications/discussion-papers.

[6] R. Chetty et al., “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Project,” American Economic Review, 106(4)(2016).

[7] Poverty and Race Action Research Council, “Expanding Choice: Practical Strategies for Building a Successful Housing Mobility Program” (Washington, DC: PRRAC, 2013), appendix B, http://www.prrac.org/pdf/AppendixB.pdf.

[8] Portability is a feature of the Housing Choice Voucher program that allows an eligible family with a housing voucher to use it to lease a unit anywhere in the United States where there is a public housing agency operating a Housing Choice Voucher program. See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “Housing Choice Voucher Program: Streamlining the Portability Process” (Washington, DC: HUD,  August 15, 2015), http://portal.hud.gov/hudportal/documents/huddoc?id=PortabilityRule.pdf.

[9] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “AFFH Fact Sheet: Community Participation and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Guidance for Public Housing Agencies” (Washington, DC: HUD, 2015),  https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/AFFH-Fact-Sheet-Community-Participation-and-AFFH-Guidance-for-Public-Housing-Agencies.pdf.

[10] J. Tran and S. Treuhaft, “Minnesota’s Tomorrow: Equity is the Superior Growth Strategy” (Washington, DC: PolicyLink, 2014), https://www.policylink.org/sites/default/files/MNT_032514.pdf.