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Industry Ignores 'Political Theater' To Focus On Why The Suburbs Need Affordable Housing

During the last week of July, the Department of Housing and Urban Development terminated the 2015 Affirmatively Further Fair Housing rule, an Obama-era policy.

On July 29, President Donald Trump tweeted that the rule change would benefit the suburbs by discouraging affordable housing development there. 

Criticism of the change in policy, along with the president's tweets, has become swift and ongoing, especially from affordable housing advocates. National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials CEO Adrianne Todman called the president's message an "insult."

Critics have argued that removing the rule has created an uneven playing field because zoning often amounts to an informal discriminatory policy. A National Bureau of Economic Research paper says ordinances have been used to deter the entry of minorities through density restrictions or to put industrial activity in minority neighborhoods.

"The president wants to take away tools to measure housing discrimination because he doesn’t want it to be counted," National Fair Housing Alliance President and CEO Lisa Rice said.

With the expiration of a federal eviction moratorium and many of the state ones as well, an estimated 21% of people who live in U.S. rental households, or as many as 22.9 million renters out of 110 million, are at risk of eviction by the end of September, according to COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project estimates. At particularly high risk for evictions are minority populations, who are more likely to be low-income but also to contract  COVID-19 compared to white populations, the Brookings Institute reports.

Quality housing, at least according to federal standards (as detailed by the Department of Health and Human Services), needs to be structurally sound, but also cost less than 30% of a household's gross income. Poor housing quality refers to housing that is lacking complete plumbing or a kitchen, or has substandard heating or electricity, or has leaks, holes or peeling paint. 

“Housing professionals, both public and private, are on the front lines helping to ensure that families, both renters and homeowners, have fair and equal access to quality housing," Todman told Bisnow by email. 

The AFFH rule didn't mandate the development of affordable housing in the suburbs or anywhere else. Rather, it required local governments demonstrate that housing projects receiving federal subsidies weren't subject to zoning laws or other regulations de facto discriminatory to minorities, The Hill reports.

“The federal government plays an integral role in supporting these efforts by ensuring that resources, like federal rental and mortgage assistance, are widely available; by breaking down barriers to access this assistance; by enforcing Fair Housing laws; and by encouraging or standing up new, creative models of community development in struggling neighborhoods,” Todman said.

Affordability is measured by households paying more than 30% of their gross income for rent; 49.7% of American renters met that metric before the pandemic, according to data from the Census American Community Survey, with millions more now added to that class as they lose their financial footing.

The previous rules were put in place to promote enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The Trump administration deemed the rules too cumbersome, according to HUD Secretary Ben Carson, and worked to overturn it. “We found it to be unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most,” Carson said in statement.

National Association of Housing and Redevelopment Officials CEO Adrianne Todman

Since the need for affordable housing is more pronounced among minority populations, political resistance to its development has sometimes been a way to be against minority relocation in a given neighborhood or area without actually saying so.

"This move is a deflection. The worst thing we can do in a major health pandemic is increase housing instability, homelessness and overcrowding," she said. "Taking away strong fair housing tools makes all of our communities less safe and increases housing instability."

Opponents to the change charge that the president's tweet was above and beyond a dog whistle, and more-or-less an opening advocating keeping minorities out of suburbs. 

One obstacle to affordable housing? Cases of "not in my backyard," or NIMBYism, from voters in otherwise progressive areas, proponents say, including in California, which is in the throes of a severe housing affordability crisis. Just before the pandemic, 41.6% of California households were cost-burdened, paying more than 30% of gross income for housing.

"Many Democrats eager to jump on the president’s tweets and accuse him of racist dog whistling have yet to confront the reality that policy in their home states is often uncomfortably Trump-like in reality," writes Matthew Yglesias in Vox.

The 2015 AFFH policy was created as a guide for implementing fair housing after the Fair Housing Act, Habitat Co. Senior Vice President, Habitat Affordable Group Charlton Hamer said. Affordable housing everywhere, including in the suburbs, must be a national policy goal, he said.

"It wasn't an urban, suburban or rural policy, but provided guidance for all. It made all communities accountable when benefiting from HUD funding, to evaluate housing patterns that caused segregation and other barriers to fair housing," Hamer said. "The new policy decision, but primarily the president’s statements, wreak of NIMBYism, and sadly the connotations of racial, ethnic and socioeconomic division are strong."

Habitat Co. Senior Vice President, Habitat Affordable Group Charlton Hamer.

Backers of building more affordable housing say that there are indications that an awareness of the racist component of NIMBYism is on the rise.

"I feel embarrassed to be a Marinite when we neglect the needs of community members — both those who live here and those who cannot," writes Ethan Strull, who is with the Bay Area Housing Advocacy Coalition, about affordable housing development in Marin County, California. "Building affordable homes will not solve all of Marin’s racial injustices but it is a necessary step."

Besides being ethically sound, it is economically good for the suburbs, he noted.

"We must provide decent and affordable housing for those who choose to pursue careers as firefighters, police officers, teachers, administrative assistants and those who work in the myriad of retail positions," Hamer said. "Why should they have to live miles away only to serve the needs of vocal affluent influencers?"

Boosters are also working hard to dispel the myth that affordable housing drags down property values. Not only does affordable housing not have an appreciable impact on nearby property values, but there is also some evidence that smaller affordable housing developments have no impact on crime rates while creating positive benefits on residents' educational attainment and health outcomes, the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency reports.

"There has been some sound research that strongly suggests a positive effect on local property values when mixed-income housing is available within a community," Hamer said. "It debunks the idea that the development of affordable housing will, as the president claims, lower property values and increases neighborhood crime."

Cypress Community Development Corp. partner Marianne Cusato, who is also an adjunct associate professor of community development at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, called the president's statements on the suburbs "a distraction." 

The affordable housing industry can and should continue to push for affordable development in suburbs, like everywhere else it is needed, she said.

"There are ways of making the suburbs more affordable, and it isn't an issue of us and them. It's about all of us," Cusato said, adding that the federal government needs to give more teeth to the Fair Housing Act and take other steps to promote affordable housing. For example, Cusato said that the program known as HOPE VI ought to be revived. The goal of the program was right, Cusato said, in that it promoted mixed-use, mixed-income, walkable communities.

"A mix of uses and a walkable community is the most equitable way to live," she said. "It took dilapidated housing and renovated it into mixed-use communities. It had problems, every program does, but those are fixable."

Contact Dees Stribling at dees.stribling@bisnow.com.