At first glance, the news that HUD Secretary Ben Carson is dialing back an Obama-era regulation called “affirmatively furthering fair housing” is apt to be misinterpreted — as a move away from enforcing anti-discrimination laws. In fact, that Obama policy itself had been a radical — and impractical — departure from traditional fair housing enforcement, and Carson is pursuing a policy which one can hope will be more constructive.
“Affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH) had nothing to do with a common sense version of anti-discrimination enforcement, which has, historically, meant ensuring that minority buyers or renters would not be turned away from a home or apartment they could afford — when similar white buyers were approved. Instead, AFFH defined discrimination to mean that any jurisdiction which accepted federal community development funds should take steps to ensure that poor, minority households were included in affluent zip code, through the construction of subsidized housing.
HUD historically has been charged with... making sure that poor communities are good communities, through public improvements.
This was ill-conceived on any number of counts. Such an approach would inevitably serve just a tiny handful of low-income households; land costs in affluent areas are high; so is the cost of subsidizing housing construction. What’s more, the social distance between rich and poor — or between the working-class and the poorest, for that matter — is a recipe for tension. Obama’s HUD, moreover, was sending an unhelpful message to poorer households — better to hit the housing lottery and move to Beverly Hills that to make the positive, incremental life choices that allow one to move up the ladder of housing, from lower to higher-income.
HUD historically has been charged with a key element in that process — making sure that poor communities are good communities, through public improvements. Cities have had an even more central role, by ensuring public safety and good schools.
Carson has moved in a sharply different — but thoughtful — direction. In this new era, HUD will look at communities receiving federal aid in the context of the extent to which their housing regulation — from zoning to permitting time, one presumes — impedes new construction, thereby making housing more expensive.
Notably, this does not imply that any community that does not include low-income, subsidizing housing is discriminating. Rather, it seeks to encourage communities at all cost and income levels to make it easier to build. HUD can help by disseminating information about new, lower-cost architectural forms—such as the “tiny houses” which are starting to gain in popularity and provide natural affordability.
Of course, some communities, on their own, may want to make it possible for lower or lowest-income households to be represented. Such economic diversity can be appealing; it can make it possible for affluent communities to have a place for teachers, police and firefighters — and for the children of longtime residents.
But not having such housing or a wide economic spectrum of residents is simply not the same as housing discrimination. Carson’s HUD might well put forward a sensible new definition that would address the race issue which was central to the Obama administration’s thinking. Rather than coercing communities to accept subsidized low-income housing, better to look more closely at actual demographics. The key question to be asked is this: are minority households represented as might be predicted by their presence in an area and by their income. Let’s say, for instance, 5 percent of minority households earn, on average, $100,000 annually — and that’s the median income of households in a given community.
If minority households are below that level, one might want to focus traditional fair housing tools there. Of course, it may be that households are simply self-selecting — and choosing to move elsewhere. Absent outright and proven discrimination, “fair housing” is not the problem.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some of the toughest places to build are not the nation’s rapidly-expanding suburbs — but older cities, where zoning, permitting costs and inefficiency strangle new construction. Those factors discriminate against everyone.
This piece originally appeared at The Hill
Howard Husock is Vice President for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute.