by Deepa Iyer, (@dviyer)
Where we live is integrally connected to many of the decisions we make in our daily lives. Our zip code determines our access to basic services, from grocery stores to schools to affordable homes. For people of color, the stakes are often higher. Many Black and Latino communities, in particular, struggle to make a living in racially segregated neighborhoods that have been systemically abandoned and neglected by government agencies and policymakers for decades.
As early as 1967, the Kerner Commission (which was directed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the causes and impact of racial uprisings in cities around the nation) observed that residential segregation was a fundamental cause of racial inequity. In the report, the Commission noted: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal… Segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”In other words, government actions and policies created the neglected inner city which had become home to poor Black communities, while the surrounding, mainly White suburbs received significant investments from the public and private sectors.
On the heels of the Kerner Report and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Congress quickly passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in 1968. The legislation was a cornerstone in protecting individuals against discrimination when they seek to rent, buy or obtain loans for housing. But the FHA went further than many civil rights laws of its time. Beyond providing individuals with legal recourse, the law also required local and state governments that received federal funding (such as Community Development Block Grants) to affirmatively advance the purposes of the FHA.
But, for the past 47 years, this requirement languished, mainly due to a lack of political will. Local jurisdictions did not comply with it, and the federal government provided little guidance or oversight. Meanwhile, the “racial ghettos” spread, moving from urban metropolises to city suburbs, and policymakers continued to neglect the needs of people of color residing in these low-income, racially segregated neighborhoods. As a result, residential segregation by income and race is on the rise in America, including in 27 of the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas, according to a recent Pew Center report.
Due of segregation many Black and Latino communities have been unable to break the multi-generational cycle of poverty. Residential segregation by race and income means that some communities have less access to health care, thriving schools, jobs, grocery stores – all of which can lead to health, educational and wealth disparities as well as experiences with racism. It is not surprising that activists highlighting the epidemic of police brutality have pointed to the high rates of racial segregation in cities like Baltimore and St. Louis as root causes of the systemic inequities facing Black communities.
Last week, the Obama Administration took an assertive step towards addressing residential racial segregation. The Administration announced a federal rule regarding the affirmative duty of local and state governments to advance fair housing goals. Under the new guidance, local and state jurisdictions receiving federal funding will be expected to take meaningful actions to address housing inequities by “replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws.” The federal government will provide data and assessment tools to assist jurisdictions to comply with this rule.
In other words, the rule could pave the way for an increase in affordable housing developments and other opportunity-based investments to shift the imbalances in areas that are racially segregated. The rule comes in the wake of the recent United States Supreme Court ruling in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. in which the high Court affirmed the role of the FHA in desegregating communities in addition to prohibiting individual acts of discrimination in the housing context.
With the Supreme Court’s decision and the federal government’s rule on the affirmative duty to take meaningful steps in order to overcome decades of housing segregation, we may see positive movement towards addressing structural racial inequity in the years to come. While advocates are cautiously optimistic, it will be up to local jurisdictions to invest the resources and attention to making the rules a reality, and up to the federal government to monitor compliance. These developments could be a harbinger of the changes that our nation must make in other contexts in order to create more inclusive, healthier communities for us all.
*Want a quick primer on residential segregation? Check out this 5 minute video.
*For a deeper dive, we recommend reading “The Supreme Court’s Challenge to Housing Segregation” by Richard Rothstein in The American Prospect and “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law” by Nikole Hannah-Jones in Pro Publica.