Integrated effort to fight housing, school barriers?

Original Reporting | By Greg Marx |
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In Montgomery County, Maryland, an inclusionary zoning program begun in the 1970s has helped to integrate the local school district.

October 19, 2010 — It seems like a long time ago now, but in the early days of the Obama presidency, one of the Administration’s signature efforts was going to be its renewed commitment to “urban policy” — that constellation of interlocking programs that shape our schools, our transportation networks, our neighborhoods and our local economies, and whose reach extends well beyond the “urban core” to the 80 percent of Americans who live in metropolitan areas. The federal government had paid “insufficient attention” to those challenges, Obama declared just a month into his tenure, and his team was going to take advantage of fresh ideas to devise a comprehensive, holistic approach. And while this program would of course require more new strategies and smarter planning, discussions of the agenda also invoked the great struggles of the 1960s: in a speech in May, Shaun Donovan, Obama’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described the creation of “a geography of opportunity” as the “unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement.”

In the wake of a prolonged economic crisis, the health care and financial reform battles, and the rise of the Tea Party, this topic has — with the exception of education policy — mostly faded from the headlines. But now, nearing the halfway mark of Obama’s term, his Administration’s broader plan is starting to take shape. As it does, a set of pressing questions is coming to the fore: How central are racial and economic integration to this new metropolitan agenda? How prepared are federal agencies — in housing, education, and related fields — to pursue those goals in the face of local recalcitrance? For that matter, how aggressively will the federal government pursue them at all?

One of the key outposts in the Administration’s effort is the new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, the product of an interagency partnership between Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation, and the Environmental Protection Agency. Run by Shelley Poticha, a veteran of the Smart Growth movement who previously held leadership positions at several top advocacy groups, the office’s mission is to “create strong, sustainable communities by connecting housing to jobs, fostering local innovation, and helping to build a clean energy economy.” To start with, the office has been allocated $140 million to distribute to regions and communities that embrace the Administration’s vision of sustainability.

So what does “sustainability” mean? The term generally signifies environmental virtue, but the office insists that it has something much broader in mind. “For a community to be sustainable, first and foremost, people need to have a job,” says Mariia Zimmerman, Poticha’s deputy. “And having access to that economic opportunity for all households throughout the region is really critical. We can’t just have affluent neighborhoods in one area of the region, or jobs centered in a couple parts of the region… We see social equity, racial equity, income equity as being very critical and central.”

The approach of the Sustainable Communities office has been, on the whole, well-received by advocates who focus on racial and economic integration as a way to create more opportunities for low-income households.

That expressed commitment was manifested in the guidelines given to regions seeking a share of the office’s funds. Applicants seeking a share of the office’s $100 million in regional planning grants were required to provide data about how segregated their region is and where pockets of concentrated poverty exist, and to outline how the money will be used to meet fair housing obligations and promote more widespread access to employment. (Award winners were announced last Thursday; an independent evaluation of successful and unsuccessful applications was not possible by press time.) The office’s yet-to-be-announced community-level grants, meanwhile, are linked to transportation funds, in an effort to align housing with transit planning to both reduce carbon emissions and improve job access.

The Administration’s stance represents a real break from a past — and some parts of the present — in which federal policy tended to focus affordable housing investments in poor neighborhoods even as it accelerated the flight of opportunity, in the form of both good jobs and good schools, to outlying areas. (To cite just one example, a recent analysis of the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in Southern California conducted by The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that units funded by the credit, which now supports the bulk of new subsidized housing nationwide, were disproportionately located in high-poverty, segregated areas that fed into low-performing schools.) The approach of the Sustainable Communities office has been, on the whole, well-received by advocates who focus on racial and economic integration as a way to create more opportunities for low-income households. And for communities and regions that embrace that vision and are looking for federal support, it is a welcome shift.

The model, though, is very much opt-in. “We are not forcing communities to have to do something,” says Zimmerman. Rather, the idea is to support local leaders who buy in, and try to demonstrate success that will generate momentum. “It’s not something that’s a top-down approach,” she says.

This strategy has the benefit of reducing political opposition. But the obvious risk is that some communities — including, disproportionately, those that have good schools, good jobs, and good but expensive housing — may opt out. This is one of HUD’s long-standing challenges: affluent communities weren’t seeking the low-income residences that historically were the agency’s chief tool, so “the provision of affordable housing” became, in effect, “voluntary,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C.

In effect, though not under the law. In addition to subsidizing public housing, HUD also administers a number of grant programs whose funds are widely distributed. Any community receiving these funds — such as recipients of the Community Development Block Grants, which amount to about $3.6 billion a year — incurs an obligation to “affirmatively further” fair housing, including a requirement to act to overcome impediments to fair housing choice; further, every community — whether or not it receives HUD funds — is required to refrain from practices that promote segregated neighborhoods. But the “oversight and enforcement approaches” of the agency charged with enforcing these mandates, HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, “have significant limitations,” according to a September 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office. The Fair Housing office began drafting new rules to promote compliance in 2009, and now says those rules should be in place in the next several months.

In an interview, the office’s director, John Trasviña, declined to discuss details of that process, but outlined a vision that was consistent with that of the Sustainable Communities office. While racial and economic inequities are not the only impediments to fair housing, and explicit efforts at integration are not the only way to address them, Trasviña said, “we do see fundamentally… that we have to reduce segregation.” This is especially true when it comes to education: “Any parent would want their child to be in an integrated and diverse school and community in order to be prepared for the outside world and the workforce of the 21st century.” But a series of Supreme Court decisions have curtailed the ability of school districts to tackle this challenge directly, he noted, which “puts a greater responsibility on housing decision-makers.”

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