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"Affirmative Furthering of Fair Housing: The 21st Century Challenge,"

by Rob Breymaier May/June 2007 issue of Poverty & Race

We’re going to make this an open city, because it’s right. We’re going to make it an open city, because it’s practical. We’re going to make it an open city, because it’s sound economics. We’re going to make it an open city, because we’re tired of being humiliated.
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago 1966

Since passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, the fair housing community has had a number of important accomplishments. First among these would be the relief provided to hundreds of thousands of victims of discrimination. This enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has provided housing and monetary relief for complainants as well as required training and monitoring of respondents. Through litigation, private fair housing organizations (with limited assistance from government agencies) have also provided systemic reform in the insurance industry and continue to serve as an important part of the movement to reform unscrupulous lending practices.

In addition, the fair housing movement has encouraged the housing industry to comply with fair housing law. This effort has had its most apparent impact on the real estate sales industry. For instance, in Illinois, real estate agents are required to take a continuing education course on fair housing every other year throughout their careers.

No Open City or Region

Unfortunately, these efforts have not resulted in an open city or region. Despite their success in providing relief to victims of discrimination, enforcement efforts have been extremely limited in overcoming or preventing segregation in our metropolitan areas. Segregation continues be a dominant factor in the formation of American urban geographies. One-third of our 331 metropolitan areas have a high index of dissimilarity. Only 15 (almost exclusively small MSAs in the Rocky Mountains) have a low index. Furthermore, this structure of segregation continues to reinforce other forms of inequality, as I will detail below.

The small integration gains that have occurred owe much to the affirmative furthering of fair housing. While enforcement efforts have been invaluable on an individual basis and industry basis, it is efforts to affirmatively further fair housing that are responsible for improving integration. The relative progress in enforcement and affirmative furthering is reflected in the federal budget’s fair housing priorities. In FY2006, HUD provided $39.9 million for enforcement through the Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) and the Private Enforcement Initiative (PEI) of the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP). Meanwhile, HUD allocated only $4.2 million to the FHIP Education and Outreach Initiative (EOI). Yet even this is misleading, as the bulk of FHIP-EOI grants are spent on consumer and housing industry education, not on projects attempting structural reform.

Affirmative furthering should at least include actively encouraging affirmative moves by all people (including whites); challenging government agencies to implement their programs in a way that balances housing and community development needs; and promoting predominantly white communities to market themselves as open to minorities.

The Example of Chicago

Chicago serves as a good example of continuing segregation and how segregation continues to reduce the opportunities available to minorities, as well as a good example of remedies to segregation. Chicago has the advantage of being home to vibrant non-profit and academic institutions that have spent time addressing segregation and inequality. The Chicago region is also the nation’s 5th most segregated.

Shortly before its closing in June 2006, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities published the definitive report (The Segregation of Opportunities) on the extremely high correlation between race and opportunity in the Chicago region. It reported that, despite minor improvements in minorities’ access to housing in area communities and reduced instances of housing discrimination reported in HUD’s Housing Discrimination Survey, stark racial and economic disparities persist in the distribution of access to opportunities across the Chicago region. According to the executive summary: “The study measured a variety of opportunity factors at the municipal level, including strength of the local tax base, quality of schools, access to jobs and transportation, and other quality of life issues, as compared to region-wide averages and the extent to which opportunities are accessible to people from various socioeconomic groups, specifically by race and income. All of the municipalities in the region were placed into one of five classes, from highest to lowest opportunities. 94% of Black residents and 83% of Latino residents lived in either the low or lowest opportunity areas.”

This followed Empty Promises, a report (which I co-wrote) a few months earlier showing how little local suburban governments were doing to enforce fair housing or promote their communities affirmatively. Of the 271 suburban municipalities, fewer than a dozen made strong efforts to maintain an open and inclusive community. Over half of those communities had predominantly African-American populations.

Neither of these reports provided any surprises. People in Chicagoland know they live in a segregated place and that little is being done to change that. However, the reports did provide, for the first time, peer-reviewed documentation of how segregation harms people of color directly and every person indirectly.

Despite these reports, opposing viewpoints primarily cited a will to self-segregate on the part of minorities while ignoring the fact that predominantly Black and racially diverse communities were doing the most to foster integration. This argument has gained in popularity in the Chicago region because new immigrant populations with language barriers do find some advantage to locating near one another. However, this argument does not hold true for second-generation minorities and especially not for African Americans who have lived in the region for decades.

In December 2006, Maria Krysan and Tyrone Foreman of the University of Illinois at Chicago presented data from the Chicago Area Survey that provided evidence that African Americans and Latinos usually do not seek out communities where they are in the majority. On the contrary, the Survey found that whites were very likely to only consider communities where they were in the majority.

In Chicago, one could also argue that the issue of housing choice is more about individual perceptions and governmental efforts than about housing industry practices. While discriminatory acts have decreased, research shows discrimination by real estate agents, landlords, lenders and insurance agents still occurs in 20-40% of all minority housing transactions. Thus, enforcement is still necessary. However, an important, yet largely unaddressed factor in the perpetuation of segregation is the absence of affirmative measures by municipalities in the region. The dearth of affirmative programs is evidence that municipalities are either promoting or ignoring prevailing perceptions of exclusivity in the region. If a suburb that is 95% white does nothing to promote itself affirmatively, it is essentially maintaining regional segregation patterns.

These perceptions are important because they affect which communities minorities will even consider. Most people do not want a hassle. And, finding a place to live is a stressful undertaking in the best of circumstances. So, when people at risk for discrimination think about buying or renting a home they either consciously or subconsciously steer clear of places that they feel will involve anything from discouragement to harassment. The most effective way to counter this problem is to persuade (or force if necessary) municipalities to affirmatively further fair housing in their communities. Until this occurs, choices will continue to be limited from the start.

Rob Breymaier is the Executive Director of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center. The Housing Center has a mission to achieve lasting racial diversity in Oak Park and surrounding communities. He is also serving as the current President of the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance.

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