Thursday, July 14, 2005

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: The 21st Century Challenge

Depending on who you ask, a little or a lot has been accomplished since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Either way, enforcement of the rights of individuals to choose where they live has been the primary focus of private fair housing groups. This has made sense given that discrimination has continued ocurring and that the few sources of funding for fair housing focus on enforcement of the law. Private fair housing centers and government agencies still receive thousands of complaints each year. And, federal funding for fair housing is much larger for enforcement than for education and outreach.

In May, the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities published a report that showed the extremely high correlation between race and opportunity in the Chicago region. The Segregation of Opportunities found that despite improvements in minorities' access to housing in area communities and reduced housing discrimination, stark racial and economic disparities persist in the distribution of access to opportunities across the Chicago region. The study measured a variety of opportunity factors at the municipal level, including strength of the local tax base, quality of schools, access to jobs and transportation, and other quality of life issues as compared to region-wide averages and the extent to which opportunities are accessible to people from various socioeconomic groups, specifically race and income. All of the municipalities in the region were placed into one of five classes from highest to lowest opportunities. 94% of Black residents and 83% of Latino residents lived in either the low or lowest opportunity areas.

This followed a report in January that showed how little local suburban governments were doing to enforce fair housing or promote their communities affirmatively. Of the 271 suburban municipalities, fewer than a dozen made strong efforts to maintain an open and inclusive community.

Given this information, it seems like the time has come to rethink our priorities in the fight for fair housing. Certainly, enforcement of individuals' rights must remain a primary concern. But, promotion of affirmative measures needs more attention in most of the country. The Midwest is in the most dire need of this type of fair housing advocacy. Midwestern cities dominate the segregation index top 50.

In Chicago (#5 on the list), it could be argued that the issue of housing choice is more about individual perceptions and governmental efforts than about housing industry practices. Discrimination by real estate agents, landlords, lenders, and insurance agents still occurs. But, what might be an even bigger contributing factor to the perpetuation of segregation is the absence of affirmative measures by municipalities in the region. The dearth of affirmative programs is evidence that municipalities are either promoting or ignoring prevailing perceptions of exclusivity in the region. If a suburb that is 95% white does nothing to promote itself affirmatively, it is essentially maintaining regional segregation patterns.

These perceptions are important because they impact which communities minorities will even consider. Most people don't want a hassle. And, finding a placeto live is a stressful undertaking in the best of circumstances. So, when people at risk for discrimination think about buying or renting a home they either conciously or subconsiously steer clear of places that they feel will involve anything from discouragement to harassment. The most effective way to counter this problem is to persuade municipalities to affirmatively further fair housing in their communities. Until this occurs, choices will continue to be limited from the start.

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