Fair Housing Assessment Should be an Organizing Handle – Is it?

fhNew Orleans   The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to do something about the continuing polarization of our communities by race, class, and ethnicity, so let’s give them some credit for that. In a new rule last year they tried to put some teeth in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, by requiring all cities that get federal housing money to submit detailed plans on how they are actually going about reducing neighborhood segregation and increasing “access to opportunities” for everyone. No Congressional action was required or I wouldn’t even be writing this. HUD as part of the Obama Administration was simply promulgating rules to try to add some teeth to the original act.

The requirement coming into full force now is the 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing. All cities in the United States receiving federal housing funds are mandated to do the assessment. This includes not only cities with public housing authorities, but also cities getting HOME monies for housing development and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds among others. “Access to opportunities” is not just rhetoric either, because this language includes jobs, transportation, and even access to quality schools. Frankly, this is anti-apartheid language.

Reading old local newspapers from a stack accumulated during my two weeks of meetings in Europe, while jet-lagged at 3 AM in the morning, an item had caught my eye from the rough draft of the New Orleans report comparing a working / middle income neighborhood in New Orleans called Gentilly, that is majority African-American with an upper-middle class, largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. In the majority-black neighborhood, the life expectancy found by the assessment was a little more than 54 years old, while in the overwhelmingly white area the life expectancy was 80, a quarter of a century more. Is that an eye opener or what?

Almost everyone this side of Donald Trump buttressed by scores of research studies understands that if we had full residential integration the gap in education and job networks would be drastically reduced. When we talk about equality and narrowing the every widening gap in America today, forcing cities to have real 5-year plans with annual updates on how they are actually going achieving real diversity across the board would seem to be a huge organizing handle. Real plans that force city and housing authority to justify any reduction of affordable and low income housing should be huge win. And, wow, a real plan that stopped CDBG funds that are supposed to be spent only in ways that upgrade lower income families and their communities rather than being used as a slush fund for local developers and mayoral cronies would be almost a revolutionary reform.

Public hearings are now being held on such assessments in cities all over the country. This would have been ACORN’s moment for local groups in all 600 organized communities to make their demands in more than 100 cities about what really needed to be done. These assessments should be a big handle for a major campaign wherever there is the capacity to launch one.

Yet, talking to some organizers here and there, they were skeptical. The early experience in recent years with this planning process before the new rule has been disappointing. How sharp are the teeth being implanted in the Fair Housing Act? Is a Democratic administration really going to withhold CDBG funds from urban mayors who are overwhelmingly Democratic as well to prod them to do better at achieving diversity in their cities or is this just window dressing?

A real campaign to make this tool a hammer rather than a paintbrush would let us see what might be possible.

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