Holder, Brandi L. “Federal Housing Policy: There Goes the Neighborhood.” Helix: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Research. (2016).
Federal Housing Policy:
There Goes the Neighborhood
Federal housing policies have existed since the 1930s. Citizen support for federal housing policies evokes a range of emotions from ambivalence to violent opposition. A recent decision by Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is no exception. The ruling, Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), is designed to deconstruct current housing policy and reassemble it in a fashion that prevents segregation, the concentration of poverty, and unequal access to community assets (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015b). The policy seeks to address historical patterns of inequality by changing planning at the local level and has garnered a slew of negative press. For example, The Hill published a 2014 piece entitled, “Obama Making Bid to Diversify Wealthy Neighborhoods.” In addition, the spectacularly slanted article on breitbart.com decries, “War on Suburbs: Obama, Julian Castro Rev Up Affirmative Action Housing.” What images do these headlines conjure? Perhaps the attack on middle-class values? Fear? Loss of control? There are many unwritten words that the media outlets want the reader to fill in. It is a complex fabric of race, big government, and capitalism. The trite narratives in the media headlines are meant to induce drama and emotional reactions helping to sell more papers.
Like most redistributive policies, federal housing policy seeks to redistribute wealth in pursuit of the greater good. In this instance, by equalizing living conditions for those who cannot afford adequate shelter. Lawrence L. Thompson (2006, 2) points to the inception of housing policy at its modest beginnings as a step to bolster the economy and put the dream of homeownership in the hands of many. From these humble beginnings, federal housing policy has morphed over the years to address issues surrounding low and moderate-income families through mechanisms such as public housing, programs targeting urban decay, entitlements, and block grants. The controversy in housing policy does not lie so much with government provision of shelter, but with the definition of adequate shelter. According to Housing Quality Standards (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development), minimums for shelter include a secure structure, plumbing, electric, cooking source, and heat. To taxpayers that could seem adequate. To those living in such housing, often described as “slums,” “hoods” or “projects,” that may seem far from adequate.
Does federal housing policy also have a duty for safety and access to jobs, education, and other community assets? In addition, to discuss housing without discussing race does a disservice to the underlying wicked problems presented in federal housing policy. The question becomes, how will this ruling be different from all those that have come before it? To answer that question means to delve into federal housing policy at the practitioner level by addressing the social constructs and narratives driving policy, historical housing policy, and the overarching goals of the AFFH regulation.
Policy Narratives & Social Constructs
Randy Clemons and Mark McBeth (2009) define public policy as the actions or decisions made by government. The decisions guiding distribution come in the form of a struggle whereby political actors use coercion, bargaining, compromise, or rewards. The conversation surrounding these decisions and the tools selected to get the job done are cloaked in policy narratives. Policy narratives are stories. Just as stories have beginnings, conclusions, and a cast of characters including villains, heroes, and victims, so to do policy narratives. What sets them apart from stories is how they are framed. Stories are meant to entertain and delight. Policy narratives are intended to advance one’s ideology or to “win” over the opposition. Political actors frame policy narratives often in ways that create emotional reactions, painting worst-case scenarios with sweeping brushes of loaded information. In other words, the narrative is not meant to illuminate, but to stabilize and underwrite a complex issue by providing slanted information. How a public problem is defined sets the tone for the rest of the policy cycle. The end result of the policy is largely determined by who has the stronger narrative and what they define as the particular social ill at hand.
Two components of a narrative that can affect the policy process are what Professor Deborah Stone refers to as the “strategically crafted argument” and social constructs (Smith 2009, 188). Social constructs can often feed a strategically crafted argument by highlighting certain information and leaving out details that could be damning to the argument. In this regard, policy makers can craft arguments to evoke mental images that make an idea attractive and the alternative gruesome, villainous, or wasteful. For example, narratives surrounding the poor often frame them as mentally ill, lazy, drug users who would rather take advantage of the system than work. Framing a concept in this light makes it almost impossible for the average person to back policies that divert tax money to supporting those that do not “deserve” help.
Social constructs (Paul Sabatier 2007) are created by policymakers to cast beneficiaries or recipients in either a positive or negative light. In turn, the distribution of benefits or encumbrances reflects and further defines the perception of the target population. Sabatier further delineates target groups into four classifications: advantaged, contenders, dependants, and deviants; each characterized by low or high power and a positive or negative perception (Sabatier 2007,101).Advantaged groups enjoy high power and are seen in a positive light. They are small business owners and homeowners; the group that puts money into the economy. At the other spectrum of the high power scale is groups seen in a negative light. Although they contribute to the economy they are considered as a necessary evil such as big business and big oil; big-box stores such as Wal-Mart often fall into this category. Shifting down the scale to no power and positive perception is the dependent group. Examples are students and children. These groups are seen as positive but have low power because although people deem it necessary to support them, they do not contribute to the economy and often do not voice their needs. Sabatier opines support and resources are not extended to dependent groups until predicated as past the point of no return, or in a crisis situation. The last category is the deviant group, which has no power and is perceived negatively. This group often includes criminals and welfare recipients (Sabatier 2007).
What are the implications of social constructs in the policy arena? It can mean that the light and shadows cast by non-rational definitions surrounding money and power affect who gets what and how they get it. Target groups are influenced by the fluidity of social constructs and as such, move in and out of power status and perception based on public mood, trigger events (e.g., crises), and shifts in administration. Also, it is important to consider what Emery Roe refers to as a metanarrative; what is left unsaid by the things that are said. Regarding housing policy, what is largely unspoken is the failures of capitalism in the Great Depression are responsible for underwriting policy emphasizing help for the middle class. As such, the unspoken metanarratives of capitalism and racism have underwritten many of the failures in housing policy.
Historical Policy Context
Federal housing policy, like most redistributive policies, is characterized by waves of expansion and restraint attached to public mood, certain trigger events (such as the Civil Rights Movement) and changes in presidential administration. According to R. Allen Hays (1995), four main issues are central to housing policy. They are quantity, quality, cost, and equity. Throughout the long and tenured 85 year history of housing policy, no one issue has dominated the landscape. Each administration has had its own slant on which area of emphasis should spin the next iteration of policy through the formation process.
Before the Great Depression, issues in housing were treated largely as a private matter. Changes in public mood in conjunction with ill-equipped local governments became the tipping point for government intervention in mitigating the effects of economic depression. Prior to 1934, housing programs addressed only short-term emergency situations such as foreclosure (Hays, 1995).The Depression had devastating effects on families as foreclosures and evictions accelerated to rates not previously seen at any other time in history. The 1934 National Housing Act, penned under the umbrella of the New Deal (Thompson 2006, 2) was designed to encourage the accumulation of personal assets and stimulate the economy. The 1934 Act contained a federally insured home mortgage insurance program administered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).The program provided incentives to both investors and individuals seeking housing. Homeowners paid premiums to national accounts that covered defaulted mortgages. The program offered fixed long-term payment schedules and low down payments (Thompson, 2006, 2).
The 1934 Act changed housing policy. For the first time, housing policy expands beyond emergency assistance and plays a federal regulatory role in banking and credit industries. According to Hays (1995, 85), the intended beneficiaries of FHA loan programs are the working class with steady income. After the Act’s adoption, more individuals can afford mortgage payments, thus putting the “American dream” of homeownership within reach of more families. Before the 1934 Act, there was no system in place to handle an influx of FHA applicants. As program demand increased, applications were controlled by private bankers. Because the program began long before the end of the “separate but equal” doctrine, it quickly became characterized by discriminatory practices. Scholars and practitioners (Hays, Heathcott, Kimble) cite the practices of private bankers refusing to write loans in central cities and point to the intersection of suburban “white flight” along with the construction of new highways and the suburban relocation of central city jobs as dealing a crushing blow to urban areas. As employers and white working-class families withdrew, central cities were left with sprawling deficiencies and a minority class with decreasing access to jobs. Hays (1995, 86) shines a light on the vicious cycle of official and unofficial discrimination by the FHA, which further contributed to private bankers forbearance on mortgages in central cities.
John Kimble (2007) delves into the deeper reasons for refusal to underwrite mortgages in central cities. Kimble’s work indicates issues beyond surface discrimination to deep-seated segregation policies between the FHA and all parties involved in the mortgage process. Kimble contends the deeper forms of racism can be seen in the historical scoring of neighborhoods based on percentages of minorities, and community assets. Passages from the 1930 and 1947 FHA Underwriting Manual indicate to agents that it is imperative that the social and racial classes stay separated to maintain property values. To further crystallize this process appraisers were directed to map the racial characteristics in each geographic area so that race and penetration of minority groups could be tracked (Kimble 2007, 405).
Racial and class tracking directives led directly to the first appearance of segregated planning processes and racially classified property deeds as standard practice. By the late 1930s, the FHA was shaping policy around its favored beneficiaries, the white middle class as the socially constructed advantaged group. Hays (1995) suggests minorities face discrimination in employment which leads to larger proportions of minorities in an impoverished state. The higher number of poor minority groups, as opposed to poor whites, links them directly to the negative images surrounding the poor. Thus in a twofold blockade, characterizing minorities as dependents or deviants prevents them from securing good jobs and penetrating the white suburbs.
The period of the 1930s also saw the introduction of low-interest construction loans to supply affordable housing to the “submerged middle class” (Heathcott 2012, 362). Initial programs were too small in scope to make the rents truly affordable to the intended beneficiaries. Housing advocates ramped up their lobbying activities and were able to successfully secure a new bill in 1937 that would become the birth of public housing. The new legislation was designed to benefit low-income recipients and control was placed squarely in the hands of local governments. The devolution of power was tricky water to navigate because it required the creation of Public Housing Authorities (PHAs) and approval of legislation that would enable localities to move forward with public housing plans (Heathcott 2012, 363).
The 1940s were characterized by the boom in housing needs generated by new families and a buckled private housing market. Hays (1995, 91) contends that public housing was sharply curtailed by budget cuts and was barely off the ground when its stock was diverted to war needs and workers. In addition, as the program began to take shape in the late forties there was much debate over the beneficiaries of the program, the design and cost of the units, and where the units would be situated. The public housing program also marked the first real devolution of power to local government. As such, public housing fell into the hands of local political figures who were responsive to their constituencies, local political networks, and public mood.
Site selection became a big grievance in this area according to Hays (1995) as local officials gave into immense political pressure to situate new projects amongst existing projects, images of slums and projects began to take shape. The social construction label of deviants surrounded the poor and attracted crime due to the large densities of disadvantaged, powerless people. This further re-enforced the perceptions of the projects and the people themselves. Concentrating many low-income tenants in one area also feeds negative perceptions (Atkinson & Jacobs 2010, 160) and leads to an aversion the public feels towards public housing projects.
As federal housing programs continued into the 1950s, they became characterized by competing goals. Heathcott (2012, 366) calls the goals a “recalibration” effort to provide adequate shelter and include: funding for urban development, increased funding for FHA programs and a commitment of new public housing units. One of the goals of the 1949 Housing Act, funding for urban development, morphed into the program that would later be the slum clearance mechanism under the title Urban Renewal. Urban renewal is one of the most dastardly programs on the books. It was designed to help clear blighted areas while creating new affordable housing stock. According to Marc Weiss (1985), less than 3% of units demolished in urban renewal areas were rebuilt by the time the program was designated a failure in the late sixties. The legislative broom of urban renewal became so closely linked to the displacement of minorities it had come to be referred to as “Negro removal” (Weiss 1985, 253).
The reality of Urban Renewal was business interests took precedence over housing for the poor as there was no mechanism in place to divert funding away from commercial interests and towards housing needs. Dilapidated housing and blighted areas were cleared, but the real damage came in the form of the breakdown of social capital. Susan Greenbaum (2008) describes social capital as a shared bond amongst the neighborhood residents that can be called upon to bridge gaps in times of need. It could be argued that social capital is crucial for an impoverished area. Many times neighbors will pool resources than enabling them to work and take care of their families. This could be the sharing of a car or childcare that is otherwise unaffordable. As housing units were destroyed, residents were relocated in many different areas and waitlisted for housing stock that was not replenished at the same rate as those that were destroyed. Furthermore, the competing housing goals of the 1950s contributed to what Heathcott (2012, 366) describes as the triple threat to minorities. As they were displaced by Urban Renewal, they were further locked out of available housing stock by discriminatory FHA policies and “gentleman’s agreements” between white real estate agents thus keeping minorities locked in declining inner cities.
Stone (2012, 340) contends, “The system of rights depends crucially on citizen’s willingness to bring their grievances to government.” Perhaps this is why historical housing policy circumvents the responsibility to provide equal access. Individuals affected are not citizens that can easily attend city council meetings or mobilize contact of elected officials. This scenario describes housing policy until reforms made in the 1960 Civil Rights Movement. The culmination of Fair Housing Laws and cabinet-level designation of HUD were the first of many attempts to change the system. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) offers protection from discrimination in housing activities such as purchasing or renting. The original protected classes were race, color, national origin, and religion. Through subsequent amendments gender, disability, and familial status were later added to the protected categories. The Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. It represented an expansion of federal authority over prior acts limited to policies where federal spending was directed. Thus, HUD assumed a regulatory role in the entire housing market (Thompson 2006, 8).
The failures of the FHA underwriting practices and public housing have set in motion many different flavors of policy designed to correct discrimination, segregation and unequal access to community assets. The Fair Housing Act was the first major legislation to do that. Two pieces of legislation that appear to have the blueprints to the new Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) ruling are the 1974 Community Development Act and the Cranston-Gonzales National Housing Act of 1990.The passage of the 1974 Community Development Act marks the first appearance of goals similar to current AFFH monitoring requirements. Localities receiving Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) are subject to approval by HUD. The process is based on a newly required comprehensive planning document in the form of a Housing Assistance Plan (HAP). The HAP is designed to address the condition of housing stock, the needs of the community, and goals for the provision of assistance (Hays 1995). Blocks grants were initially popular with localities due to their quiet reliance on existing local political arrangements (Hayes 1995) which also meant the grants were vulnerable to pull from other areas such as economic development and infrastructure.
The second piece of legislation that has similar goals to the AFFH is the Cranston-Gonzales National Housing Act of 1990. The act emphasizes stability through homeownership like its predecessors and is entrenched in the ideology of federal devolution to localities that began to emerge in the late 1970s (Ziebarth& Meeks 1998). The 1990 act also introduced a revised planning process to replace the previous HAP agreements. According to Hays (1995), the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) was similar to the HAP agreements in that it required localities to review current housing stock, the current housing market, and available resources. What made CHAS planning different was the requirement of public-private task forces and the need for a five-year plan to address areas of deficiency.
Affirmatively Further Fair Housing, AFFH
To understand AFFH, it is important to view it through two lenses: its inception, and how it will achieve the stated goals. Historically, housing policy has been plagued with vague and often conflicting design concerns. With no oversight and clever private stakeholders, the programs become a clearinghouse for individual profit, a facade for political humanitarianism, and thus reach their biggest failure point at the end-user. The implications being that most of these programs had a great chance of harming the very population that they were supposed to benefit. With each program failure and each change in political conditions, federal housing policy re-entered the policy cycle.
In the traditional iteration of the policy model (Clemons &McBeth 2009), policies go through a cycle or loop as they make a natural progression from the problem definition through adoption on to implementation. The evaluation stage is where decisions are made about how to change or terminate the program. In reality, the policy process can take on variable directions and infinite loops that are based on public mood, shifts in administration and trigger events. The problem definition is the most difficult part of the process. It takes much cajoling and compromising to come up with a working definition of a problem that will be clear enough to make the government agenda. Often, trigger events or other propaganda laden items get pushed forth that are ambiguous and difficult to understand, while other problems are shaped by an uninformed public or an elected official who has a stake in the outcome (Clemons &McBeth 2009).
Taken through a view of non-rational processes, a more fitting rubric is offered by Professor John Kingdon’s model (Anderson, 2011). The model states that three separate streams (problems, proposals, politics) must converge in a window of opportunity to set an agenda and shape future policy development. In simple terms, the model indicates that agenda setting is a combination of the above mentioned forces in an opportunistic time frame that will secure a majority interest on an issue. Critics such as Michael Leahy (2015) contend that the AFFH ruling is a form of social engineering that was passed under cover of an important Supreme Court decision regarding site selection of low-income housing units. The case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.,(2015) is about disparate-impact and whether certain policies, such the concentration of low-income housing in inner-city neighborhoods, creates a disproportionate disadvantage to minorities groups. Disparate-impact at its core is about whether the effects of policy create an adverse impact on protected classes, regardless of the intent of the policy. The current state of civil rights in conjunction with the Supreme Court case, as viewed through Kingdon’s model, appears to be where the problems, politics, and proposals converged to advance the agenda of new housing policy.
To sidestep a discussion of the racially charged narratives, such as those in housing site selection, creates a missed opportunity to correct underlying metanarratives of racism and capitalism that damn minority groups to a rung of unequal access. Atkinson and Jacobs (2010) highlight the complexity of the self-fulfilling prophecy of social construct laden narratives by suggesting that the poor are “thrice damned” to particular neighborhoods because they bend to the bureaucrats’ requirements for their low income, take on the label that availability of inferior housing is resultant of their dysfunction, and as the final nail in the coffin, are subject to low political support because of the conditions (densely impoverished areas) created for them by the low political support.
AFFH is designed to change all that by enforcing equal access, which has been the documented goal of housing policy since the 1960s. It is a clarification of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. According to the Federal Register (U.S.Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015), AFFH is designed to promulgate the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and to overcome historic patterns of segregation and unequal access. This will be achieved through several channels that start at the local planning level. Program participants receiving CDBG funding will be required to address legacy segregation patterns by taking steps to balance communities in a way that is free from segregation.
AFFH represents an attempt to correct the imbalances in communities dating back to the beginning of housing policy, such as those created by the FHA. In the Regulatory Analysis HUD states that although it is not possible to define “fairness and dignity” they are values at the heart of the AFFH rule; values, when addressed, propel communities out from under restricted zoning practices (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015, 2). However, instead of a blanket mandate, HUD recognizes that all regions are different and allows for local decision making of planning policies under a general rubric.
What is strikingly different about AFFH is that it does not require a particular action to be applied to all localities; it can be likened to a tool box. Each jurisdiction is able to use tools that apply to its specific circumstances. Also, HUD encourages (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015), but does not require, program participants to work together in a horizontal collaboration to effectively pool resources.
According to the Federal Register(U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015), the resources available to localities include a standardized assessment tool, provision of big data, agency collaboration, and the facilitation of civic engagement. Under previous housing policy, localities conducted an analysis of impediments (AI) that blocked protected classes from fair housing choices. However, prior to the AFFH regulation, these plans were largely unmonitored (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015, 42272). Under the new process as documented by the Regulatory Impact Analysis (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015a,1) Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) combines standardized government data on issues such as patterns of segregation and impediments to community assets, with local strategic planning.
One criticism of other post Civil Rights corrective housing policy such as HAP agreements (Hays 1995, 261) is the process became merely a numbers-crunching exercise. AFH moves beyond this in the Regulatory Impact Analysis (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2015a,) whereby it translates the goals of the rule from paper to implementation. Possible actions to overcome impediments to access include modification of zoning and site selection, transportation systems linking housing to employment centers, revised lending practices, and access to information about rights and responsibilities. The particular mix of tools used will depend heavily on how proactive the locality was in previous planning practices and what resources regarding time and money are available.
Federal housing policy emerged as an emergency bailout to homeowners. Its initial goals were to provide jobs and economic growth during the Great Depression. Later programs were designed to provide improved access to affordable and desirable housing. When viewed through a historical context, the link between housing policy and racism appears. Strategies to correct imbalances are often met with the predominant narrative of government social engineering to disrupt middle-class neighborhoods (Leahy 2015). However, the very beginning of housing policy such as FHA underwriting practices, slum clearance, and restriction of low-income projects could be likened to a form of social engineering.
The housing conversation starts by acknowledging that policy began at a time when both the policymakers and the beneficiaries were white middle-class families. Up until the Civil Rights movement, the poorest of the poor and minorities had no voice. With no one to hear them, they were shut out of the policy conversations that could improve their lives. Public policy is often a reactionary machine to public mood. The tension felt by what changes are desired in policy is the attempt to pull the pendulum into balance. The AFFH rule seeks to correct the imbalance created in earlier policy by elevating communities as a whole, not by displacing minorities or brute force integration of suburbs. AFFH certainly has the flavor of post Civil Rights era corrective policy that relies on data, planning and civic engagement. But is this policy doomed like all those before it? Only time and the next iteration of the policy cycle will tell.
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