Obama Puts 'Fair Housing' on Agenda: Why Segregation Still Matters

By Trumbull, Mark | The Christian Science Monitor, July 8, 2015 | Go to article overview

Obama Puts 'Fair Housing' on Agenda: Why Segregation Still Matters


Trumbull, Mark, The Christian Science Monitor


The Obama administration laid down a marker with a newly issued rule under the Fair Housing Act, arguing that racially segregation in housing remains a significant problem for America - and that the problem can be solved.

The rule, at face value, doesn't sound revolutionary: It will equip cities that receive federal housing funds "with the data and tools that will help them to meet long-standing fair housing obligations in their use of HUD funds," the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) said in announcing the change Wednesday.

But with those data and tools comes the expectation that they will be used to address the patterns of segregation that persist, some 47 years after the Fair Housing Act was enacted in an effort to end racial discrimination in housing. Proponents say the new rule puts new pressure on communities to act, and that a failure to do so could result in loss of federal funds.

In those five decades, the level of racial segregation has decreased, but slowly - and predominantly black neighborhoods in particular have persisted.

"As we see in Ferguson, Baltimore, McKinney, and cities across the nation, America today is still grappling with the ugly legacy of segregation and concentrated poverty," Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a statement about the new housing rule. "This rule will help ensure that everyone - regardless of their zip code - has a fair shot at the opportunities they need to succeed."

Her reference to poverty touches on what economists see as a core point: Racial segregation coincides heavily with economic inequality.

Both segregation and concentrated poverty have persisted in recent decades, despite a growing black middle class and despite the trend of poverty becoming as likely to be found in suburban as in urban neighborhoods.

At the same time, recent economic research has found that housing mobility can translate into upward economic mobility. In other words, where people live has sizable impacts on how they fare in life.

When a child moves from a high- to lower-poverty area (thanks to housing vouchers), that brings substantial benefits to both individuals and taxpayers, according to an analysis by Harvard University economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren.

From its inception, the Fair Housing Act was aimed not only at ending overt discrimination in local real estate markets but also at "affirmatively" promoting more diverse communities.

"For too long federal efforts have often fallen short," HUD Secretary Julian Castro said Wednesday in Chicago as he announced the new rule, called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation. …

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