By Deron Lovaas, Natural Resources Defense Council
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a historic and overdue final rule requiring its grantees to leap forward by “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.” This lofty phrase comes from a 1968 Civil Rights law, and represents an unfulfilled promise in too many communities and regions. As the rule sums up in its lengthy response-to-comments portion, “Because housing units are part of a community and do not exist in a vacuum, an important component of fair housing planning is to assess why families and individuals favor specific neighborhoods in which to reside and whether there is a lack of opportunity to live in such neighborhoods for groups of persons based on race, color, national origin, disability, and other characteristics protected by the Fair Housing Act.”
The 377-page rule (pdf here) has 5 major provisions:
- It replaces an outdated “Analysis of Impediments” (AI) requirement for HUD grantees, implementation of which the agency admits (and GAO agreed) has been spotty and imperfect, with a new “Assessment of Fair Housing” (AFH). HUD has committed to providing data and an “Assessment Tool” for implementers writing AFHs. In addition to identifying barriers to fair housing choice, the new plan must also include goals, metrics and strategies for improving the picture. However, there is ample flexibility in determining what exactly those should be, with a lot of deference to local implementers and an iterative process of approval by HUD. The agency is also careful enough to specify that implementers should balance their approaches such that reinvestment in existing neighborhoods doesn’t get short shrift due to a focus on individual mobility to affordability (something my colleague and boss Shelley Poticha wrote movingly about here). For example, greater use of housing choice vouchers could help prospective home-seekers escape from areas of concentrated poverty while exacerbating that very concentration problem. Besides, as HUD tartly notes, vouchers as a solution face challenges due to “constraints…given the current budgetary environment.”
AFHs are also of interest to NRDC because a program support – the Sustainable Communities Initiative or SCI, a partnership between DOT, EPA and HUD – provided grants for development of “Fair Housing Equity Assessments” (FHEA) including strategies for remedying inequities identified therein. HUD commits to providing guidance on converting and FHEA to a “successful regional AFH” in the future. This is good news, because some of these assessments and the regional agencies that authored them in turn can serve as beacons for drafting an AFH. Learning from these agencies such as the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) and the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) will be important during rule implementation. FHEAs also include tailored strategies for increasing fair housing choice in their regions, showing how flexible these planning tools can be.
The regional approach is especially important for reducing suburban sprawl, which can be driven by lack of housing choices (the “drive ’til you qualify” phenomenon home buyers too often face), as thinker Myron Orfield has written and as this more recent article and graphs explain well. This is important to NRDC (and to me) given sprawl’s mounting environmental costs and consequences as my friend and colleague Kaid Benfield has written about extensively on these pages.
- HUD will “[i]mprove fair housing assessment, planning, and decisionmaking by HUD” specifically by providing data to grantees for development of AFHs. This is the “boring but important” piece of the rulemaking. HUD is committing to a more robust partnership with grantees in this rule, and after this big step will collect and package data sets and analysis, new guidance and an Assessment Tool to help with compliance. Data analytics may elicit yawns, but as an online course I took recently made clear, it’s transforming an increasing number of fields. And it’s about time housing reaped benefits from this new era of “big data,” which could end up being one of the more important consequences of this rule. The Urban Institute has also made this point in reaction to the new rule in this excellent blog post.
- HUD will incorporate the AFH into existing planning procedures, namely consolidated plans and public housing authority plans, in order to integrate goals more effectively into them. This is important for transforming the way that housing planning is done currently. In fact, HUD goes to great lengths to explain that new planning documents and procedures are kept at a minimum by the rule which should be comforting to grantees.
- HUD will encourage and facilitate coordination between plans, which is true although specifically mandating metropolitan AFHs would have been a useful addition to the rule (to be fair, the rule is clear that “the inclusion of larger regional analysis for participants is necessary” and so should be part and parcel of local AFHs). HUD has committed to future helpful guidance, however, including for integrating AFHs and metropolitan planning organization plans and programs under federal transportation law.
- The rule also provides new public input opportunities, giving individuals and groups in these locations opportunities to help shape AFHs.
In short, there’s a lot of work ahead for HUD and its grantees. The Assessment Tool is especially important, and will be the vehicle for defining key components of AFHs, such as what “region,” “disparity of community assets,” and what “concentration” of poverty might mean, as well as a tool for streamlining AFH development and HUD review. I look forward to analyzing and critiquing the new and improved version when it rolls out.
Now let’s get to work on next steps toward fair housing for all.