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New York City Can Lead on Fair Housing, but the Road is Steep

January 18, 2019

As we celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we must also actively work to take on the persistent challenges of inequity around access to safe, decent, and affordable housing, and access to opportunity.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) – the culmination of years of sustained organizing – is a powerful tool to address these challenges. Passed in 1968 in the wake of King’s assassination, the FHA was and remains a key part of Dr. King’s legacy and that of the Civil Rights Movement more broadly. Sweeping in its scope, the FHA outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and family status. Importantly, the FHA prohibits private acts of discrimination that limit where people might choose to live - such as discrimination in the terms and conditions of rental or sale, discriminatory advertising, or misrepresentation of available housing - and directs the actions of governments. Recognizing that federal, state and local governments acted over generations to create and maintain segregated and unequal neighborhoods - actions that created a landscape of inequality and entrenched the racial wealth gap - proponents of the FHA made sure to craft a tool that would require the government to act affirmatively to correct these inequalities.

Despite this, over 50 years after the passage of the FHA, New York City has a persistent and, in many ways, worsening problem of segregation and inequality. As ANHD’s research has shown, people of color, especially Black and Latino communities, continue to be locked out of homeownership opportunities. Similarly, a disconnect remains between local jobs, opportunity, and employment for local residents, particularly in communities of color that have faced historic disinvestment. Many communities have not been able to participate in the economic prosperity that the city has experienced, left behind and at growing risk of displacement, lacking housing choices in rapidly-changing neighborhoods, and facing limited access to surrounding neighborhoods. Many New Yorkers – including people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities, and others the FHA was expressly designed to lift up – are increasingly made to feel like outsiders in the communities they have shaped and built.

How did we get here? Part of the answer is that FHA’s call to action has never been fulfilled. The rules implementing the FHA require any federal, state, or local government agency that receives federal HUD money to take steps to “affirmatively further fair housing” by fighting housing discrimination and improving housing choice. But the federal government has almost never withheld funding from localities for failing to advance the FHA, leaving America’s landscape of inequality largely untouched. In 2015, the Obama administration sought to change this by issuing new rules that directed cities to undertake a new, more demanding review of fair housing – a process that required localities to work with everyday people to identify structural barriers, create strategies to allow greater housing choice, adopt “place-based” solutions to address entrenched neighborhood inequality, and develop specific goals and metrics to put their plans into practice. Cities across the country, from New Orleans to Seattle, kicked off deep assessment and planning processes designed to overcome fair housing challenges, identifying creative solutions to lower barriers to expanded affordable housing in high opportunity areas through inclusive strategies such as reserve publicly owned land in high opportunity neighborhoods for affordable housing. But just as New York City prepared to begin its assessment of fair housing, the Trump administration called it off, allowing cities to revert back to the old ways that never worked.

Thankfully, New York City didn’t take the out. Instead, the City launched Where We Live NYC, an extensive process led by the Department of Housing and Preservation (HPD) in partnership with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Over the course of two years, the City will convene advocates, community members, and departments across the city to identify contributing factors to the inequities that we observe across the city and the strategies to undo them. These conversations have already begun to unfold – both in city agencies and in frontline communities. Over the next phase of this work, there will be continued data analysis, ongoing opportunities for public input, and coordination across government agencies and partners to ensure solutions are comprehensive, feasible, and impactful.

In Dr. King’s words, “The challenge ahead is to work passionately and unrelentingly to remove racial injustice from every area of our nation's life. In order to do this, it will be necessary to develop a powerful, creative action program. This problem will not solve itself. It will not work itself out. Massive action programs will be necessary all over the nation in order to remove the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination.” Beyond creativity, in order to build power, we will need continued, collective action that leads to legislated solutions. As the City works to identify the factors that have contributed to inequitable outcomes, set policy goals, and formulate strategies, it must take action that meets the immediate needs of communities at risk of displacement and builds more just and inclusive neighborhoods. In 2019, the City’s fair housing assessment process offers a critical opportunity to guide how future decisions and plans are made, and whose voices are centered in that process.

This conversation is also happening regionally. Over the course of 2017 and 2018, Enterprise Community Partners and the Fair Housing Justice Center took the lead by co-convening a group of nearly 30 affordable housing, fair housing, disability rights, community development, for- and non-profit organizations in the Regional Affordable and Fair Housing Roundtable to explore housing issues across the region and find policy areas of common concern. In November 2018,  a full-day Summit created space for dialogue around the importance of removing exclusionary zoning and other land use barriers to promote accessible, integrated, and affordable housing; improving tenant protections across the region; and promoting affordable multifamily housing across the region.

ANHD, its non-profit members, and many of our movement allies eagerly support the renewed calls for fair housing in the city because we and the larger community development movement exist for the same reason that the FHA does: to ensure safe, decent, and affordable housing for all people, and thriving, equitable neighborhoods for all New Yorkers. As the City continues to assess and address its fair housing challenges, our groups are working on the ground in their neighborhoods and in coalitions to advance justice, equity and opportunity.

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