By David M. Greenwald
Last November the League of Women Voters brought Richard Rothstein to speak in Davis about housing. One of his more compelling themes was the failure of the civil rights movement to deal with segregation in housing, which has led to a nation that is more segregated than ever in terms of where people live.
He argued that the civil rights movement in the US addressed discrimination and segregation in schools, in voting, and for the most part “abolished segregation in buses and lunch counters and all kinds of accommodations, transportation and employment.
“Yet at the end of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement really folded up its tent and went home,” he said. “It left untouched the biggest segregation of all, which is that every metropolitan area is residentially segregated.” He asked how can this be when we have come to understand that segregation and discrimination are morally wrong, and yet, “everywhere we look (are) clearly defined boundaries by race.
“How can it be that we left this untouched?” he asked … and then answered his own question. “We’ve adopted a rationalization to excuse ourselves from addressing the most serious segregation of all.”
It is against this backdrop that we need to understand the AFFH — the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. AFFH was an update to the federal requirement that aimed to eliminate discrimination and reduce segregation in housing. It was originally part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act (FHA) signed by President Johnson that sought to end discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.”
As Rothstein pointed out, despite the AFFH and FHA being in effect for over 50 years, America remains more segregated in housing than ever.
That means disaffected communities of color lack access to good schools, health care and public programs.
But a stronger AFFH got rolled back by President Trump at the outset of his presidency. He then poured gas on the fire when, in late July, he tweeted, “I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…
“Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down,” he tweeted. “I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule.”
He later called the rule “hell for suburbia,” remarking that “people fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home. There will be no more affordable housing forced into the suburbs … It’s been going on for years. I’ve seen conflict for years.”
The President’s claim that the rollback of the AFFH means suburbanites will “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood” is misleading. The AFFH actually does not mandate low-income housing to be built in suburban areas and, even more importantly, it never really took effect. It was updated under the Obama administration in 2015, but paused in early 2017 when Trump took office, meaning it had no meaningful impact on anything that we are observing now.
What the 2015 update did was to enact new regulations that require the cities and town that receive federal funding to “meet long-standing fair housing obligations in their use of HUD funds.” That means they are “obligated by law to reduce barriers to fair housing.”
“As a former mayor, I know firsthand that strong communities are vital to the well-being and prosperity of families,” said former HUD Secretary Julian Castro. “Unfortunately, too many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from, and a ZIP code should never determine a child’s future. This important step will give local leaders the tools they need to provide all Americans with access to safe, affordable housing in communities that are rich with opportunity.”
What the president actually did policy-wise is fairly limited. He basically revoked the 2015 rule, but left in place the more general obligation to “affirmatively further fair housing” written into the Fair Housing Act.
Proponents note that these rules do not just apply to suburbs and there are no provisions that would force a community to build low-income housing.
Lisa Rice, the President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, explained, “If a community says we have no affordable housing in our community, we want to build some, and we want some of that affordable housing to be built for very low-income people, a community could definitely do that.”
She said, “The President cannot say that building low-income housing fulfills all fair housing goals.”
Rice noted, “President Trump is trying cloak fair housing under this guise of keeping the suburbs safe from ‘those low income people.’ It’s almost as if he’s assuming that all black people live in low-income houses or that low-income housing is just for black people.”
In fact, Rice argued that his thinly veiled rhetoric on race actually applies to a wide range of individuals.
She said, “Are your programs in any way discriminating against families with children in an illegal way? Against people with disabilities. It’s really about building and fostering communities of opportunity.”
Other critics point out that the president has a rather dated view of suburbs as some kind of safe haven for white housewives who appear to be in constant fear of inner-city violence coming across the urban/suburban divide.
But that’s not the reality. Moreover, as we know from our experience in California, affordable housing is not just for the poor, it is a way for middle income people to be able to afford housing in a community.
Housing figures to potentially be a big issue for November. We are on the brink, and with the end of renter protection in our country’s response to COVID, it is believed that as many as 28 million renters could face eviction. Even before COVID struck, Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies found that 20.5 million families struggled to pay their rent, but only 1 in 4 eligible renter households received financial assistance.
In short, the President is messing with the housing protections at a time when more Americans than ever are housing insecure.
—David M. Greenwald reporting