Our system is broken. And as our affordable housing crisis lingers and deepens, the pandemic continues to reveal alarming figures. Despite the disbursement of CARES Act funding and the latest round of Emergency Rental Assistance, an estimated 14 million Americans continue to owe back rent payments. And while these devastating impacts are deeply felt nationwide, a study shows that, again, Black and Hispanic households are disproportionally affected. This is no coincidence. It is symptomatic of a rigged and underfunded system that continuously produces racial disparities and falls short of its promises. As President Biden vows to heal the nation and to pursue racial justice, you may wonder, “What does this look like?” Here are three promising policies you should pay attention to.

1. Eliminating exclusionary land-use policies

In essence, land-use policies regulate lot size, density, sitting, and the height and form of structures. These policies not only affect the cost and availability of housing but also residential sorting of individuals — perpetuating segregation. These communities (often wealthy, white neighborhoods) frequently pretext pressure on infrastructure, such as traffic concerns or local schools, and the desire to maintain “neighborhood character.” It’s hard not to hear the racial undertone in defending the status quo and socioracial profile of communities. President Biden’s housing plan wants to tackle that. The proposed program would allocate flexible competitive funding to jurisdictions removing exclusionary land-use policies. The incentive-based program, said to be “purely carrot, no stick” holds real promise but also sizable risk. While the details are not yet fleshed out, I would warn that, absent of reporting requirements, performance metrics, and distributional goals, this could lead to another government-sponsored program concentrating affordable housing in high-poverty/low-opportunity areas. Location matters, and data is needed. The challenge for the Biden Administration is to design procedures that balance accountability and flexibility, without deterring participation or worsening inequities. Part of the answer may be found in fair housing. 

2. Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH)

The balancing of meaningful reporting requirements with local latitude was best embodied by the Obama-era fair housing rule. Prior to being eviscerated by former President Trump, the rule established a robust and data-driven process for communities receiving federal funding to better understand their fair housing landscape. The planning process required the completion of a data-driven assessment examining fair housing challenges such as segregation, concentration of poverty, housing needs, access to opportunities, and local policies (i.e., zoning); and to accordingly develop goals to address issues. To that effect, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) provided nationwide data about disparities and neighborhood quality, and developed a publicly available interactive mapping tool to help communities in their decision-making process. Although its primary tool presented (rectifiable) technical flaws, the 2015 AFFH rule represented an unprecedented advance in fair housing planning. To put teeth to their racial justice-focused agenda, it is essential for the Biden-Harris team to fully reinstitute the rule while improving the data and technical tools provided to communities.

3. Voucher program expansion and innovation

Federal rental assistance programs are essential to America’s safety net system. Although these programs lift an estimated 3 million households out of poverty, another 16 million are left unassisted. The funding is insufficient, but not only. Key programs, like the Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly known as “Section 8”), have hardly evolved since their inception. And despite the very intent of the program, families disproportionally reside in areas of poverty. Why? Because we are not funding what works. A series of groundbreaking research led by renowned Harvard economist Dr. Raj Chetty found that the provision of customized assistance, also referred to as “mobility counseling,” significantly increases leasing in high-upward mobility neighborhoods. Yet, Public Housing Authorities are not funded to provide mobility counseling. But this may change. The President’s initial 2022 budget not only seeks to expand the Voucher program to serve 200,000 more families, but it also includes funding for mobility-related supportive services to provide low-income families who live in racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty with greater options to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods. In 2018, and in response to the North Texas Assessment of Fair Housing, our agency designed and operationalized that very program — the first of its kind, called Children First North Texas. A cautionary note would be that the pursuit of innovation is not a cost-free exercise for Housing Authorities. And while President Biden is on target, it is now equally important that the federal government deploys the necessary technology for housing program administrators to deliver on the President’s promises.

Undeniably, the slope is steep; but our downfall could be steeper. As our new administration continues to craft bold and innovative policies, our communities await for change. And with tangible pathways ahead, we may finally have a fair shot.

Dr. Myriam Igoufe is the Vice-President of Policy Development and Research at DHA, Housing Solutions for North Texas, and former Co-Principal Investigator for the North Texas AFH research group at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Published on May 13, 2021