Point of View: Advancing Fair Housing - by Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEO

Diane Yentel, NLIHC President and CEOSoon after the start of the 115th Congress, Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) and Senator Mike Lee (R-UT) reintroduced legislation they sought to advance in previous Congresses. The “Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017” would nullify HUD’s regulation and resources to help communities meet their legal obligations to affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH).

Mr. Gosar and Mr. Lee have attempted to roll back progress to further fair housing for years. Most recently last summer, Mr. Lee (together with then-Senator David Vitter [R-LA]) offered an amendment to the FY17 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Related Agencies (THUD) appropriations bill to remove HUD’s ability to implement and oversee its AFFH rule. The amendment was soundly defeated.

Now is not the time to roll back advancements towards making housing fair for all. Communities from Ferguson to Flint to Milwaukee highlight the decades of federal, state and local housing policies that created and sustain communities of deep poverty, geographically cut off from opportunity – as well as some of the consequences of inaction.

Research continues to build proving just how harmful it can be for people - especially children - to grow up in neighborhoods of deep poverty. Raj Chetty’s groundbreaking research confirmed that where you live – the city, the neighborhood, the block, even the street – has a profound impact on the opportunities you get in life. In fact, of all the determinants that affect our ability to climb the economic ladder, few are more important than the homes and communities in which we are raised.

And every year matters. Every year a child spends living in a high-poverty neighborhood can cement lifelong detrimental impacts – impacting everything from educational attainment to earnings to life expectancy.

Today 14 million people live in such high poverty communities, and the numbers are rising – nearly doubling since 2000. The number of communities considered to be ones of high poverty have increased by 75% in that period. The effects are felt most profoundly within communities of color. One in every four poor black families and one in every seven poor Latino families live in concentrated poverty. That’s compared to the one in every thirteen poor white families.

For almost 50 years, the Fair Housing Act has been the law of the land, not only barring outright discrimination in housing, but also requiring communities to take active steps to end racial segregation. Ultimately, the goal of this milestone legislation—and Congress’s intent in enacting it—is to ensure that everyone, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, and familial status, is able to choose the neighborhoods where they want to live based on what is best for themselves and their families. Providing all families, no matter what their background, with this choice requires that we work towards making every community one with ample opportunity for economic mobility, with access to good schools, jobs, healthcare, and transportation. Mr. Gosar once stated that “American citizens should be free to choose where they would like to live.” Unfortunately, his own legislation would prevent exactly that from being possible.

Until recently, communities had very little guidance on how to further fair housing and lacked the tools to meet their obligations. The Obama administration took the historic step of providing communities with definitions, data, tools, and guidance to enable and empower them to better meet their fair housing obligations to address the significant disparities in access to opportunity.

In addition to seeking to eliminate the AFFH rule altogether, Mr. Gosar and Mr. Lee go further in their proposed legislation, adding a new section this year to prohibit federal dollars being used to “design, build, maintain, utilize or provide access to a federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”

Think about this for a moment. Not only do Mr. Gosar and Mr. Vitter want to keep HUD from implementing the Fair Housing Act’s requirements for communities to further fair housing. In addition, they want to prohibit the federal government from gathering or making public any information on residential segregation or disparities of access to opportunity. They seek to remove the ability of local, state and federal policy makers to base policy solutions on sound evidence. This is highly problematic in many ways, not least of which because it is in direct opposition to Speaker Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) bipartisan efforts to ensure evidence-based policy making.

We strongly oppose all efforts to roll back both legally lawful efforts to further fair housing and the public availability of data that makes measuring progress possible. While the legislation is unlikely to move forward on its own, I am certain we will see attempts to add similar provisions to spending bills or other “must-pass” legislation throughout the year. NLIHC will work closely with our members, partners, and allies throughout the country and in Congress to oppose and defeat these efforts every step of the way and to ensure that everyone in America has equitable access to opportunity and to decent, accessible, affordable and fair housing.