Genuine housing choice in Massachusetts?

Fair housing has been on my mind a lot lately.  I attended two educational forums about fair housing last week and also drafted a section on fair housing for the upcoming new guidebook on the Community Preservation Act and Affordable Housing for the Massachusetts Housing Partnership (MHP) and the Citizens' Housing and Planning Association (CHAPA). Fair housing laws are a collection of federal and state laws enacted to protect civil rights.  The law that has been most in the spotlight lately is the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) primarily as a result of the the US Supreme Court's June 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project (TDHCA v. ICP).  This decision reinforces integration as a core purpose of the FHA and affirms the public obligation to advance integration.

What does the FHA do?  It obligates public agencies to affirmatively further fair housing through regulations and policies.  It also prohibits discrimination for housing-related transaction on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability. In addition, the Massachusetts Anti-Discrimination law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of marital status, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, children, military status, receipt of public assistance or housing subsidy, genetic information, and ancestry.  For example, it would be discriminatory to exclude families with children from a community through local public policies that favor development of units that are too small for families or only for seniors.

What does it mean that the FHA obligates public agencies to affirmatively further fair housing?  Well, to understand this, it is important to understand what is meant by the phrase "disparate impact."  Disparate impact, which was at the heart of the Supreme Court's TDHCA v. ICP decision, means that even when a regulation or policy is not intended to discriminate it may still have a discriminatory effect.  For example, many communities in Massachusetts prohibit any form of multi-family housing development through the local zoning bylaws.  Although, there has been no Massachusetts case law yet around this issue that I am aware of, such a prohibition may be seen as causing a disparate impact by limiting housing opportunities for protected classes and hampering integration.

“Much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.” Source:  U.S. Supreme Court’s June 25 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project.

The country faces a growing problem of concentrated poverty linked to worsening racial segregation.  Massachusetts is no exception.  In fact, Springfield is among the top five highest areas of Hispanic concentration of poverty in the country. (Richard Florida, 8/10/15 post in The Atlantic City Lab:

Last week, I attended CHAPA's forum about the Supreme Court Ruling on Disparate Impact and HUD's Final Rule where Henry Korman, Klein Hornig LLP; Deborah Goddard, MassHousing; David Harris, Charles Hamilton Institute for Race and Justice, and Joe Kriesberg, MA Association of CDC's gave informative and thought-provoking presentations on the issues we face.

Deborah Goddard's presentation included maps and statistics demonstrating the level of racial segregation and concentrated poverty in Massachusetts and how private and public affordable housing has been concentrated in areas of concentrated poverty.  (Deborah Goddard's presentation slides:

Goddard asks, how can we provide genuine housing choice that offers meaningful access to opportunity?

One of many striking facts Goddard presented was that the majority of affordable housing units in the Boston-NH Metropolitan Statistical Area, an area that includes about 70% of the state's residents, are located nearest to schools ranked in the bottom 10th percentile.  As Goddard explained, and I agree - we need to be honest in the conversation because life outcomes are affected.

This is not a new discussion or a new problem.  Check out this 1975 report by the MA Advisory Committee to the US Commission on Civil Rights and the MA Commission Against Discrimination "Route 128: Boston's Road to Segregation."

How do we address these issues?  I won't claim to have the answers, but I recognize some of the main problems:  our exclusionary land use regulations; limiting transportation system; local preference policies for affordable units; net fiscal impacts of development on municipal services; and the allocation of state and federal resources.  Learn more about efforts to pass H.1111, An Act Relative to Housing Production to provide tools to help address these issues and meet our housing production needs - see CHAPA's summary of the bill.

Want to learn more?  Sign up for emails from CHAPA and the Mel King Institute series to learn of opportunities to continue the discussion and identify solutions: