Separate but Not Equal: Why Housing in the US Needs Desegregation

The rising tide of income inequality in the United States has grown too noticeable to ignore. The community integration of America’s richest and poorest families would level the drastic differences in environmental and educational opportunities between the rich and poor that exist today and greatly improve social mobility in regions where it is most lacking. It can be achieved by changing the way that federal and local governments approach housing policy and regulation. Although it seems counterintuitive, the federal government must reallocate its spending on low-income housing away from poor neighborhoods and instead invest in affordable housing development in “high opportunity” communities—areas with well-funded school systems and little crime. However, this cannot be achieved without stripping local governments of their restrictive zoning laws, which often act to exclude low-income families from feasibly entering these communities.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) currently spends $32.6 billion a year on developing affordable housing for low-income families and individuals. At first glance, allocating federal funds to the communities that need it most would seem like a sensible policy decision, and most housing nonprofits and state authorities would agree. These coalitions—typical of distressed neighborhoods in cities across the country—argue that subsidizing housing in locations that are already distressed will encourage their growth and revitalization. Yet, as the 2016 election nears and the nation’s burgeoning inequality demands more and more political attention, sociological and economic research has started to poke gaping holes in the conventional practices of the HUD and housing authorities across the country. The problem, they say, is that concentrating low-income development in areas already concentrated with low-income households will compound the US poverty trap for these families and individuals.

Indeed, it is far more likely that the activist organizations centered in these communities are simply desperate for grants and, additionally, that the politicians representing them are eager to claim credit for a façade of development and progress. Yet the money—and the development that comes with it—continues to be directed into low-income areas, and the outcomes are dubious. Many are now claiming that truly helping the poor with subsidies would require development to take place in the aforementioned “high opportunity” communities, which not only provide residents with a surplus of public and educational resources, but shield them from the traumas of crime and violence that are persistently rampant in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods. Yet resistance to any such proposals has been expectedly stiff. For decades the urban planners and administrators of the nation’s more exclusive communities have used zoning laws—laws regulating the use of real property—to exercise protection against their fears of low-earners “free-riding” their public school systems and the potential effects of affordable housing developments on the safety and overall ambience of their towns. Yet the impact of these laws creates not only significant economic segregation, but also daunting barriers to social mobility and abandons our least skilled and educated. The result is a country that is not only unequal but also systematically oppressive and suffocating to the poor.

As a first step, local governments in rich communities must be stripped of their excessive control over land use, not only to allow the government to fund affordable housing in these areas but also to open the door to private real estate developers and businesses who could capitalize on this deregulation. Achieving this would require serious political maneuvering—the constitutionality of zoning has been upheld for almost a century—and, more importantly, a greater public awareness of the socio-economic exclusion that zoning laws create.