Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), wants opinions about his proposed changes to federal housing policy. We’re in the opinion business, so here’s ours: It is a plan fraught with unintended consequences.
The proposal, unveiled in early August, would ease zoning restrictions that Carson says limit affordable home construction for low-income families. It also would shift HUD’s strategy away from efforts to integrate lower-income housing into wealthier neighborhoods in favor of promoting more housing development overall.
“I want to encourage the development of mixed-income multifamily dwellings all over the place,” he told the Wall Street Journal.
It seems like a laudable goal, but it doesn’t take much of a review of history to recognize an uncomfortable truth. Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made racial discrimination a violation of federal law, a half-century later substandard and segregated housing patterns persist in Dallas and nearly every urban community. The reason is that economic mobility requires more than an increase in the overall inventory of affordable housing. New units must be located near economic opportunities.
That’s why increasing the pool of affordable housing, while important, doesn’t necessarily translate into economic mobility, which should be the end game of housing policy. Where one lives affects job and educational opportunities and, ultimately, economic mobility.
A 2015 Harvard study, for example, found that young children whose families moved during the 1990s from high-poverty housing projects to neighborhoods offering good jobs and schools grew up to be better-educated, more economically successful adults. These outcomes were true for all races and both girls and boys. For each year spent in a better neighborhood during childhood, youngsters benefited from increased earnings in adulthood.
Dallas is a prime example of how housing patterns have hurt cities. Poverty has increased 42 percent in the past two decades, a rise that local studies attribute in part to segregated housing patterns that concentrated affordable housing in southern Dallas and market-rate housing in much of the rest of the city.
The federal government has limited control over state and local land-use policy. But because housing is the biggest expenditure for most families, federal, state and local governments must view their policies as levers to provide opportunities for prosperity. Effectively, this means encouraging affordable housing and breaking down entrenched barriers that perpetuate cycles of poverty.
Resource-deprived communities need targeted strategies to promote robust economic mobility and prosperity. One improvement would be to require landlords in all neighborhoods to accept rental vouchers as valid sources of income as long as renters are able to pass all other requirements. Another is to better monitor how tax credits have channeled affordable housing into minority-heavy and poor neighborhoods instead of scattering affordable housing throughout cities.
A third is to encourage higher-density construction near jobs, streamline permitting and development costs and take aim at other factors that have negatively affected housing construction.
As a nation, we must rethink our housing policies with the goal of reducing poverty and making our cities more equitable for all residents.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS