Rolling back fair housing protections will not ease America's housing crisis

Rolling back fair housing protections will not ease America's housing crisis
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More than a decade after the 2008 financial crisis, American communities from coast to coast are still struggling under the weight of a persistent housing crisis. That crisis, which is driven in large part by a disconnect between supply and demand that is exacerbated by NIMBYism and restrictive zoning, is nowhere near over. But a recently proposed rule from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that would roll back critical fair housing enforcement – ostensibly to ease the burdens causing the crisis – misses the mark.

Some supporters of the new HUD proposal fundamentally misunderstand fair housing enforcement as a barrier to the widespread housing production that Americans deserve. In other words, it is possible to achieve two laudable goals at the same time: We can advance smart housing policies consistent with the reality on the ground while simultaneously preserving the federal government’s authority to enforce policies aimed at desegregating American communities.

Supporters of the new proposal see fair housing laws, under which municipalities must submit reports to HUD to undo the pernicious impacts of hundreds of years of discriminatory housing laws, as yet another obstacle in the road to producing more housing. While it is true that there are far too many roadblocks preventing the production of new homes, the reality is that fair housing requirements are not among them — and, in fact, they’re working.

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Consider a 2018 analysis of the most recent American Community Survey (2013-17) undertaken by the Brookings Institution. It found that segregation declined in 45 of the largest American cities from 2000-17, including in all 10 of the cities with the highest Segregation Indices. While this represents a noteworthy improvement, there is still much work to be done. 

In my home city of New York, segregation remains a persistent challenge. According to the Brookings report, New York is still the second-most segregated urban environment in the United States. While the City has advanced commendable initiatives to study and combat segregation, it needs the support of the federal government to achieve its ultimate goal. 

Unfortunately, according to the nation’s fair housing experts, the new rule will only make segregation worse. The National Fair Housing Alliance argues that the proposal will “significantly weaken fair housing compliance, entrench segregated housing patterns, and continue the status quo,” while the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law argues that “discrimination will continue unabated,” if this proposal moves forward.

Making matters worse, rolling back fair housing enforcement will not address the real causes of the housing crisis. Those are driven by restrictive zoning policies that make it functionally impossible to build homes in wealthy and transit-rich neighborhoods, the economic challenges of building affordable housing for low-income families, and the provincialism of NIMBY communities in New York to Los Angeles and everywhere in between.

I see this every day as the head of New York’s affordable housing trade association in which our hundreds of members work each and every day to develop real solutions to this critical crisis. I am confident that, even if HUD moves forward with this new plan, the fundamental challenges underpinning the housing shortage will remain — and desegregation efforts will have been needlessly impeded. In that scenario, nobody wins. 

Jolie Milstein is the president and CEO of the New York State Association for Affordable Housing (NYSAFAH).