Fair housing rule needs to be used everywhere, not weakened

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Mike’s family moved from Georgia to Hartford in the late 1980’s. Latin Kings, 20 Love, and other gangs were rampant in the city’s housing projects. He lived in the Martin Luther King projects, snuggled between Dutch Point and R.J. Kinsella Elementary School. The school was failing so badly that one dedicated teacher spent her own money to photocopy her text book for her students. When Mike (not his real name) was 8 years old, a distant aunt passed away, leaving her home in Bloomfield unoccupied. His family was able to move out of Hartford.

Today, Dutch Point has been torn down and replaced with mixed income homes. R.J. Kinsella is one of the jewels of the Hartford Public School system after its rebirth as an arts-focused magnet school.

Progress has occurred, but it is slow moving and comes with a major caveat: access to these improved homes and schools is largely based on luck. Waiting lists for public housing and rent subsidies through the federal Section 8 program are closed except for the most extreme cases. Entrance to Kinsella and the other magnet schools in Hartford is contingent upon random selection in a city-wide lottery.

Most families of color in Hartford looking for greater opportunity are not fortunate enough to have family members with empty homes to offer, and sit for years on various waiting lists for both better education  and housing options. The best chance for these families may be to leave Hartford and move into higher opportunity neighborhoods — areas with access to mass transit, decent jobs, and good schools.

But if they lack the resources to move to better areas within Hartford, how will they afford to move into towns such as West Hartford and Glastonbury?

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH) may be a critical piece of the solution. Instituted by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in 2015, the rule states that municipalities must examine impediments to fair housing in their own jurisdictions and in their regions with tools provided by HUD. If patterns of segregation due to race, income, disability or other factors are found, municipalities must submit corrective action plans for HUD approval. Towns and cities which do not make sufficient progress towards fair housing practices risk losing access to federal funding, and potential legal action in the form of lawsuits.

AFFH has been characterized as a ruling that finally puts teeth into the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The rule has created the tools to easily see the lack of affordable housing options in the surrounding Greater Hartford area and to address patterns of both economic and racial segregation. Encouraging the creation of regional affordable housing opportunities is critical for allowing people of color choices for living in communities other than low opportunity areas. Hartford already has more designated affordable housing units than the seven contiguous municipalities surrounding it combined. With this information, municipalities can create plans to increase affordability and offer low income families a means to move into high opportunity neighborhoods.

AFFH is already under attack from both the Trump administration and Congress. Dr. Ben Carson, the current Secretary of HUD, has gone on the record against AFFH, stating that it relies on a “tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws” to effect change. Two bills– one in the House and one in the Senate– have been introduced to nullify AFFH, with the House bill going as far as preventing the use of any federal funding to “design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of …. community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”

AFFH and fair housing policy are lifelines to low income families and people of color who have been crowded into low opportunity neighborhoods in cities like Hartford. We need HUD and the federal government to use these rules, not repeal them.

Jamil Ragland is a freelance writer from Hartford. Rex Fowler is CEO of the Hartford Community Loan Fund.

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