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""The Goal of Inclusive, Diverse Communities": Introduction to the final report of the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity"

January/February 2009 issue of Poverty & Race

The National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity’s recently released final report includes significant new recommendations for reforming fair housing enforcement and federal housing policy to promote housing choice and reverse continuing trends of residential segregation. The Commission, co-chaired by former HUD Secretaries Henry Cisneros and Jack Kemp, was created through the partnership of four leading national civil rights organizations: the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund (LCCR/EF); the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights under Law (LCCRUL); the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA); and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF). PRRAC served as one of the consultants to the Commission. The key recommendations in the final report include:
  • Moving fair housing enforcement (investigation and prosecution of discrimination complaints) from HUD to a new independent agency, advised by a Commission appointed by the President, with day-to-day operations overseen by a career staff (in the near term, while this structural change is being implemented, the Commission also recommends separating HUD’s current Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity into two offices, the Office of Fair Housing and the Office of Civil Rights—in order to prioritize and strengthen both fair housing enforcement and internal agency compliance).
  • Revitalizing the President’s Fair Housing Council to coordinate fair housing activities throughout the federal government, as provided by Executive Order 12892.
  • Strengthening the Fair Housing Initiatives Program by increased funding to $52 million immediately, with a longer- term goal of supporting a private fair housing group in every metropolitan region in the country.
  • A renewed commitment to “affirmatively furthering fair housing” among HUD grantees that includes enforceable time frames, comprehensive agency review of community plans and sanctions for non-compliance.
  • Incorporating a fair housing analysis in the response to the foreclosure crisis, requiring HUD and Treasury to affirmatively further fair housing in mortgage rescue activities and marketing foreclosed properties.
  • Restoring the central role of fair housing in the design and implementation of federal housing programs, including major HUD housing programs (Section 8, public housing, HOME, CDBG), the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and USDA housing programs.
  • Providing a renewed emphasis on the value of diverse, inclusive communities in national media campaigns.

Commission members—in addition to former Secretaries Cisneros and Kemp—included Okianer Christian Dark, Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Howard University College of Law; Gordon Quan, Houston, Former Mayor Pro Tem and Chair of the Housing Committee for the City of Houston; Pat Combs, past President of the National Association of Realtors; Myron Orfield, Professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law; and I. King Jordan, President-Emeritus of Gallaudet University. A copy of the full Commission report is available at and on the websites of each of the sponsoring civil rights organizations.

The following excerpt (notes omitted) sets out the Commission’s vision for inclusive, diverse communities.

Forty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and 20 years after the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (Commission) was convened to address the significant and ongoing national crisis of housing discrimination and residential segregation. The Commission conducted regional hearings in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, and Houston, to collect information and hear testimony about the nature and extent of illegal housing discrimination and its origins, its connection with government policy and practice, and its effect on American communities. In this report, the Commission calls for renewed efforts to end both old and new patterns of housing discrimination through better enforcement, better education, and systemic change.

When the Fair Housing Act was first passed, racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods were generally discussed only in terms of benefits to racial or ethnic minorities. Today, many recognize that diverse neighborhoods have tangible benefits for all people who live in them and that true diversity is more than just “racial integration.” Rather, a diverse community is one where all residents are included, where no group is privileged above any other group, and where everyone has equal access to opportunity.

The goal of the fair housing movement is to support and promote these inclusive, diverse communities of choice: communities and neighborhoods where families choose to live; where housing and schools are stable and well supported; where employment is accessible; and where all racial and ethnic groups, and persons with disabilities, are an integral part of the larger community.

What are some of the characteristics of these communities?
  • Inclusive, diverse communities have quality schools with diverse student bodies that enhance outcomes for all children.
  • Inclusive, diverse communities have a healthy, robust housing market that competes for buyers and renters from all racial and ethnic groups in a region and cannot be easily targeted by predatory lenders.
  • Inclusive, diverse communities contribute to the regional economy with a range of housing choices for workers of all income ranges, and help to prevent the harmful concentration of racially isolated poverty at the core of the metropolitan region.
  • Inclusive, diverse communities incorporate accessible design and housing options that maximize inclusion of persons with disabilities in the built environment and in communications.
  • Inclusive, diverse communities successfully resist sprawl and its negative social and environmental impacts by consolidating growth for a mixed income, diverse population along efficient transportation corridors and by bringing workers closer to regional job centers.

We also recognize that these inclusive and diverse communities can be formed in different ways. They may include predominantly White suburban towns that are becoming more economically and racially diverse; or integrated older inner-ring suburbs facing high rates of foreclosure, which may need infrastructure and marketing support to maintain a stable, diverse population over time; or lower income urban neighborhoods experiencing gentrification and the accompanying influx of new money and community services that brings both benefits and threats to existing residents.  Each of these community contexts demands different types of support in order to maintain a stable, inclusive, diverse character. 

Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968 to guarantee the right to choose where to live without facing discrimination or legally imposed obstacles. This is a core value that needs no additional justification. But it is also important to recognize the other benefits and values that are promoted by inclusive and diverse communities:

Diversity in communities leads to diversity in schools.
A diverse, inclusive learning environment is one of the most important benefits of fair housing. In most parts of the country, housing and school segregation are closely linked. Most school districts rely on geography to assign students, resulting in school demographic patterns tracking residential patterns. School diversity has been shown to reduce racial prejudice, increase racial tolerance, and even improve critical thinking skills.  Minority students who attend diverse schools are more likely to graduate from high school, attend and graduate from college, and connect to social and labor networks that lead to higher earning potential as adults. 

Inclusive and diverse communities can break down social divisions.
The deep geographic racial divide in the United States feeds a sense of fear, suspicion, and alienation. In his testimony, Professor john powell highlighted the impacts of this racial divide on economic inequality, and the sense of unfairness and resentment that geographic separation can foster:
    [I]n many regions, we are polarizing into socially, economically and racially isolated enclaves of extreme high and low opportunity. A range of high and low opportunity areas is to be expected; people and places are diverse. The challenge for us, for our democracy, and for our children is not that a range of communities exist, but that the gulf between the high- and low-opportunity areas today is often so wide as to hardly be transcended. Often, the highest performing schools, the healthiest air and groceries, the most active social networks critical to finding sustainable employment are concentrated together and removed from the vast majority of residents. These “favored quarters” dot our regions and threaten to undermine a sense of shared community.

Just as school integration can reduce racial prejudice among children, we can expect a similar result in shared communities and neighborhoods. For example, recent research shows that sustained cross-racial contact lowers stereotyping and prejudice, even on a subconscious level. 

Inclusive and diverse communities provide a base for family economic success.
A home is the major asset for the vast majority of American families and the primary means of building equity and passing wealth from one generation to the next. Yet segregation has made minority families more vulnerable to predatory lending practices as well as to the devastating social and depreciation impacts associated with foreclosures concentrated in a community.

Inclusive, diverse communities attract a wider range of potential buyers from throughout the metropolitan area, which sustains housing prices and leads to more balanced appreciation in home value. Diverse communities are also less likely to be targeted for predatory or subprime loan products.

Inclusive and diverse communities provide access to opportunity for lower income families.
Racial segregation separates lower income African-American and Latino families from opportunity in metropolitan areas,  which predictably leads to depressed outcomes in education, employment, health, and other measures.

In the 1980s, the Gautreaux Assisted Housing Program demonstrated that families benefited by moving from high poverty, racially isolated neighborhoods to very low poverty, racially integrated suburban communities. These new areas also happened to be areas of high opportunity, with high quality schools and richer employment offerings, which led to positive results for many Gautreaux movers and their children (including higher rates of employment for mothers and academic benefits for children). There was also evidence that these moves to higher-opportunity areas gave residents a “new sense of efficacy and control” and more interracial contact, leading to a reduction in racial stereotypes. 

Inclusive and diverse communities support smart growth and environmental values.
“Smart growth” planning emphasizes mixed use, mixed income, higher density, pedestrian-friendly communities that are accessible to public transportation, enjoy ample open space and recreational opportunities, and reduce traffic congestion, energy consumption, concentrated poverty, and sprawl. Many smart growth advocates have rejected a no-growth approach to limiting sprawl and have embraced affordable housing as a key element of socially equitable smart growth planning.  Affordable housing development distributed equitably across communities in a region furthers smart growth goals by increasing housing densities, encouraging transit-oriented development, bringing low-wage workers closer to jobs, and shifting land use planning from the local to the regional level. 

Inclusive and diverse communities support regional and global competitiveness.
America’s economy is now centered in metropolitan areas that “encompass large cities, old and new suburbs, and even exurban and rural areas that, by virtue of their interwoven labor and housing markets, share common economic destinies.”  But segregation has a detrimental impact on the competitiveness of metropolitan areas in our increasingly global economy. A true rebirth of distressed areas (and the cities in which they are located) will only occur if we make these places “neighborhoods of connection that are fully linked to metropolitan opportunities” for individuals and families with a broad range of incomes.  

A recent report about Minneapolis/St. Paul explains the consequences of our nation’s current course that is reflective of the situation throughout the nation: “Without serious attention to the next generation of workers, who are more likely to be minority, and more likely to be poor, the Twin Cities workforce will be smaller and less skilled than currently, presenting the possibility of a less competitive future.”  Reducing disparities between individuals of different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses is critical to economic competitiveness and “can promote a strong future workforce, improve the region’s fiscal situation, and build a healthier region.” 

All over America, thoughtful advocates, community organizers, and families are working to find ways to build equal opportunity in housing. In this report, we build upon that innovation, those ideas, and the spirit of change, offering concrete recommendations for actions that we believe are critical to move us forward toward our vision of creating and sustaining stable, diverse, inclusive neighborhoods across America.

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