It’s been a landmark year for civil rights and fair housing. In the past few months alone, we’ve seen a Supreme Court decision on disparate impact and new rules from the Obama Administration on state and city obligations to “affirmatively further fair housing.”
The Supreme Court and the Obama Administration recognize the need both to rejuvenate low-income neighborhoods and create access to wealthier communities. However, locally, the fair housing debate has focused primarily on one question: How can we help more low-income New Yorkers move to high-cost neighborhoods with access to safe streets, good schools, jobs, transit and health care?
Ensuring broad access to high-opportunity neighborhoods must be a central part of any strategy to create a more equitable and inclusive New York. That’s especially true in light of recent research from Harvard’s Raj Chetty, who found that moving a young child from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood improves her chance of going to college, lowers her chance of being a single mother and increases her expected income as an adult.
But fair housing is about much more than neighborhood access. Our city has a wide variety of neighborhoods—some affluent and rich with opportunity, some rapidly changing in a wave of gentrification, and some mired in a persistent state of concentrated poverty. Drawing lines around neighborhoods is not a practice that we recommend, but creating opportunity looks different depending on what is needed in a particular community. An effective fair-housing strategy must address each of these neighborhoods, not just the most affluent ones.
Enterprise calls this the “both/and” approach to fair housing. We need to both ensure broad access to high-opportunity communities and allocate the resources necessary to transform distressed neighborhoods into vibrant, diverse communities of opportunity—neighborhoods that people live in by choice, not by necessity. And for neighborhoods that are in transition, we must ensure that current residents have the chance to share in the renewed prosperity by fighting displacement and prioritizing new affordable housing options. These strategies, of course, are not mutually exclusive; they must be pursued in tandem.
But how can we achieve the dual goals of revitalization and mobility? We need a variety of tools to further fair housing, including stronger enforcement of laws that seek to prevent housing discrimination and improving the Section 8 program to allow greater access to communities of opportunity for low-income families. Policymakers at all levels of government—federal, state and local—play a crucial role in the solution, which must also involve increasing resources for affordable housing. That’s why in the coming months, Enterprise Community Partners, where we work, will publish a long-term policy agenda outlining the policy changes necessary to meet this ambitious goal.
On the federal level, Congress should expand the successful Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which leverages private capital and has bipartisan support in Washington. Developers requested more than twice the amount of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits than were available in 2013, meaning hundreds of viable developments that would serve low-income families in need are turned down because of scarcity of tax credits, not because of applicants’ qualifications or community needs. The program can also be strengthened through a measure called “income averaging,” which would facilitate economic diversity in a variety of neighborhoods—making wealthy neighborhoods more accessible to extremely low income families and vice-versa—without new subsidy.
In Albany, the state legislature should expand the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit (SLIHC), which is an excellent but scarce resource that already reaches a broader range of incomes. The current funding level is $8 million annually, and the demand is four times higher.
And here in New York City, we need new flexible sources of capital, tax incentives and zoning changes to expand affordable housing in many different types of neighborhoods. In high-income and gentrifying neighborhoods, we need additional tools to cover the increased costs of construction without sacrificing the number of homes created. In low-income communities, where market rents are not high enough to cover costs of creating housing for very low-income residents, additional tools are needed to introduce economic diversity, providing moderate-income housing opportunities as well.
To be sure, each of the above policies requires additional resources, which may seem difficult in today’s fiscal environment. But we can cover the cost through relatively modest tweaks to existing programs to help rebalance how we spend housing subsidies. For example, the federal government spends billions of dollars each year to subsidize the mortgages of high-income families who don’t need government support to remain stably housed.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in 2010 the average government housing subsidy for a family earning more than $200,000 per year was four times greater than the subsidy for families earning less than $20,000 per year. More specifically, the higher income families earned an average of $7,000 of subsidy, mostly from the Mortgage Interest Deduction. By comparison, the lower income families received less than $1,500 in housing subsidies. Moreover, only 23 percent of households who are eligible for federal rental assistance actually receive the benefit.
If it is our goal—as we believe it should be—to create a city where every child, no matter where they are born or the color of their skin, has a fair shot at success, we must take bold action. Let’s make sure we don’t have to have this same conversation in 50 years.
For more information on Enterprise’s policy platform, please visit our blog. Judi Kende is vice president and New York market leader at Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national organization that creates, preserves and advocates for affordable housing. Elizabeth Strojan is program director for Policy at Enterprise.