The Houston Housing Authority recently held a public meeting where hundreds of people attended to oppose a proposed development in a high-end neighborhood. The newspaper described the audience of this neighborhood as often yelling and booing at the Authority’s staff. Unfortunately, this scene is not unique. It is a scene that many in the affordable housing world have heard about or experienced. The proposed development is a mixed-finance development that will be financed with 4% tax credits, bonds and CDBG-Disaster Recovery funds. Although there will be some market rate units in the development, 70% of the units will be for persons earning 60% of the area median income (AMI) and 10% of the units for those persons earning 30% AMI. The reason for the opposition is because the Authority is proposing this development near a high-end community or an area of high opportunity – a neighborhood which has access to jobs, better schools, closer grocery stores, public transportation and more retail.
Since the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) vs. Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) case, affordable housing developers have been concerned of being exposed to lawsuits if they do not consider developing in areas of high opportunity. ICP alleged that tax credits were being disproportionately awarded by TDHCA in racially segregated neighborhoods. More specifically ICP claimed that TDHCA was preserving racial segregation in the manner in which it was awarding the tax credits. This claim contended that although TDHCA’s policies appeared race neutral, they in fact had a discriminatory effect on poor, minority communities. A month after the Supreme Court ruling, HUD released its final rule for Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) which further set forth the requirements to meet fair housing obligations when utilizing federal funds. The Supreme Court ruling along with the AFFH final rule added to developers’ considerations when identifying development locations which utilize public funding.
Both the TDCHA lawsuit and the AFFH final rule strongly influenced the Authority’s proposed location. But was the Authority prepared for the level of opposition it received in making this decision? In the affordable housing world, this type of opposition is known as NIMBYism or the sentiment of Not In My Back Yard. Community opposition and NIMBYism has gotten sophisticated and expresses its opposition through public meetings, password protected websites and social media. These community groups are very careful to not directly address “those people” but that is in fact the issue. People are often not open, willing nor tolerant of people unlike them, based on race, income and class, living in their neighborhoods.
But what happens when we do not make more concerted efforts to develop in high opportunity neighborhoods? More importantly, what happens when we do not make efforts to redevelop those high minority, high poverty neighborhoods that have been historically neglected? That’s simple, we find ourselves preserving and even encouraging segregation, poverty and hopelessness. Neglecting a community provides little opportunity for that community to better itself. We find ourselves watching incidents similar to those we witnessed in Ferguson and Baltimore. Although those incidences were triggered by the killings of two young black men at the hands of the police, they illuminated issues of not just police brutality but the issues that come with racial segregation in neighborhoods with high poverty and unemployment, few decent housing choices and poor educational opportunities.
The real issue is that people should have the ability to freely choose where they live. However, this choice is not one of true freedom if neighborhoods don’t have similar or equal access to opportunity. When high poverty neighborhoods are left to blight, decline and crime, communities are left to seek options outside of their neighborhoods, if those opportunities don’t exist within. Many people don’t want to leave the neighborhoods that look like them and are close to other important amenities like church, barbershops, beauty parlors and grocery stores that carry cultural foods. However, when our cities do not address the decline and resources are not directed to these communities, people are left without choice.
The Houston Housing Authority is not the only affordable housing developer that has had to address issues of NIMBYism, and it won’t be the last. We must address not just issues of developing in areas of high opportunity and revitalization of high minority communities but we must address the issue of choice. We must be willing to build in neighborhoods of high opportunity. However, we must also be willing to direct resources to declining communities. As long as our neighborhoods remain separate but unequal, decisions will be forced onto communities and the opportunity for choice will be removed.