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"False Choices in Fair Housing Policy,"

by John Henneberger September/October 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

There is emerging consensus around three public policies to affirmatively further fair housing:

  • Expand subsidized housing choices outside racially segregated high poverty neighborhoods,

  • Reinvest in public facilities and services in racially segregated high poverty neighborhoods to improve the quality of life for existing residents; and

  • Maintain affordable housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods to achieve stable, racially and economically integrated communities.


  • Too often today, however, attacks on housing mobility programs are presented as a bifurcated choice of community revitalization vs. resident mobility: Should we revitalize low income neighborhoods with additional investments in subsidized housing, or should we give families living in subsidized housing in those impoverished neighborhoods the option to move to less segregated and higher-income neighborhoods? This false choice is used to appeal for public support to continue disproportionate targeting of HUD housing funds to racially segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods. The alternative, the argument goes, is to abandon these communities that have suffered from decades of public disinvestment in everything except subsidized housing.

    Framing the issue this way is wrong. It ignores the simple truth that community revitalization, while essential, will never succeed by simply adding more subsidized housing to a poor neighborhood.

    A recent article about my hometown, Austin, Texas, in The Atlantic, “What Will Become of America’s Slums?” by Alana Semuels, presents a case in point.

    Semuels’ story examines new affordable housing developments on Austin’s previously poor East Side and the attitudes of residents who choose to live in these communities versus those who have chosen to move to other high-income parts of town. I have worked for more than three decades with community development corporations (CDCs) both for community revitalization and as an advocate for increased housing choices and mobility on the part of people of color with lower incomes who depend upon subsidized housing.

    Today, no one could characterize either of the article’s chosen areas, around Foundation Communities’ wonderful M Station development or the beautiful Guadalupe neighborhood, as distressed or segregated. Both neighborhoods have transitioned recently into high-opportunity areas that are racially, ethnically and economically diverse. Students in the neighborhood schools show some of the highest test score improvements in Austin. Crime is way down. Retail and entertainment is drawn to these areas like a magnet. The “high-opportunity” nature of both neighborhoods has led to the widespread economic displacement of people of color with lower incomes, principally by white people with higher incomes.

    These neighborhoods were not revitalized by large-scale investments in multifamily subsidized housing. They were revitalized by strategic, long-term investments in public facilities and services, owner-occupied home rehabilitation, street, alley and sidewalk improvements, community accountable policing, and small-scale infill rental and owner-occupied housing developed by CDCs under the control of neighborhood residents, whose mission is primarily about community development and improvement. These are former distressed neighborhoods that today are high-opportunity neighborhoods largely because of the leadership of neighborhood residents. The greatest problem they face today is their desirability and the rapid influx of middle- and upper-income, largely white households in Austin who are clamoring to move in.

    The M Station tax credit development in the story was developed at just the right time by an enlightened nonprofit, in a manner strategically coordinated with the residents of the neighborhood. It was built in the wake of the community development improvements neighbors worked to secure. M Station leveraged and consolidated the massive public facilities revitalization expenditures over several decades.

    The Revitalization vs. Mobility Debate

    Clearly, these parts of East Austin are not distressed neighborhoods to be employed in the revitalization vs. mobility debate. People on both sides of that debate would agree there needs to be more public investment in affordable housing in order to stem the involuntary exodus of low-income, and especially low-income African-American households from transitionally integrated, high-opportunity areas. The neighborhoods in Semuels’ story are among the only economically, racially and ethnically integrated neighborhoods in Austin today.

    There are other areas in Austin that are racially segregated, manifestly lower-opportunity neighborhoods with high poverty and high crime that can serve as examples of areas that need to be revitalized. By official public policy, Austin for decades concentrated virtually all subsidized housing in segregated, high-poverty neighborhoods. Along with promoting segregation the city also, until just two decades ago, withheld public services from these communities. To maintain this type of segregation is unconscionable. Of course, there are also many neighborhoods in other parts of town, undeniably high-opportunity places to live, that have very few low-income residents and absolutely no subsidized housing. Those are neighborhoods that need subsidized housing.

    As the article rightly suggests, we must avoid generalizing that every family of color wants to remain living in historic African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. That has long served as a justification for the appalling segregation of subsidized housing that exists today. The gentrification of East Austin and the general exodus of the city’s African-American population is the product of both choice and denial of choice. Many people of color are finally exercising a choice to move out of traditional minority neighborhoods to the suburbs. Others are being denied their choice to live in their neighborhood by rising rents and property taxes.

    What the Story Does Not Discuss

    What the story does not discuss, and what is badly needed in Austin and the rest of the nation, is a more sophisticated understanding of how to leverage the dynamics of urban neighborhood transition into stable, integrated communities, along with a consensus on public interventions that can transform distressed neighborhoods into high-opportunity neighborhoods of choice. Having seen the transformation of the neighborhoods featured in the article up close over many years, I can say for sure that revitalization did not begin with additional subsidized housing. Revitalizing a neighborhood required much more.

    If we are serious about overcoming segregation, we need to reject the false choice of community revitalization vs. resident mobility that would maintain the status quo. We need to get on with a policy that deals with the realities our neighborhoods confront. Let's expand subsidized housing choices, reinvest in public facilities and services while supporting existing homeowners in racially segregated high-poverty neighborhoods and figure out how to maintain affordable housing opportunities in gentrifying neighborhoods.

    John Henneberger , a 2014 MacArthur Fellow, is Co-Director of the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service, past director of several successful Texas CDCs, and an advocate for fair and affordable housing. He blogs at texashousers.net. john@texashousing.org
     
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