A recent report published by Richard D. Kahlenberg, who is a senior fellow at Century Foundation, has taken a closer look at the Fair Housing Act in order to look for ways to improve upon the landmark civil rights legislation. Put into law nearly 50 years ago, the Fair Housing Act was put in place in an effort to eliminate segregation by eliminating what was considered to be government-sponsored racial discrimination. By banning apartment buildings in areas that are meant for single-family homes and mandating minimum lot sizes for homes, however, has resulted in economic segregation that ultimately leads to racial segregation in many areas.
According to Kahlenberg’s report, titled “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” current public policy is making the situation worse by creating additional and unnecessary barriers. Overall, the report found that there was some progress between 2000 and 2014, with black-white segregation declining in 45 of the 52 metro areas examined. Nonetheless, areas of extreme poverty continue to grow. Furthermore, neighborhoods with a poverty rate of double the national average in 1970 remained poor 75 percent of time while losing roughly 40 percent of their population.
Zoning Leads to Class-Based Segregation
While Kahlenberg analyzed data from a number of different sources, the research conducted by Jonathan Rothwell and Douglas Massey, who is a sociologist at Princeton, was among the most troubling. While studying the impact of zoning on economic segregation, the researchers found that zoning was a key factor in the increase in class-based segregation. They further found that changing permitted zoning from the most restrictive to the least would close 50 percent of the gap between the least unequal metropolitan area and the most when it comes to neighborhood inequality.
Increased segregation is problematic for many reasons. With 75 percent of American schoolchildren attending their neighborhood public school, housing policy is also essentially school policy. Furthermore, where a person lives affects his or her quality of life, health care, access to transportation and employment opportunities.
Addressing the Issue
To address this issue, Kahlenberg suggests promoting inclusionary zoning practices that would require new housing construction to include affordable units. He further calls for eliminating or discouraging the rules that unnecessarily lead to people being excluded from neighborhoods and their schools. The city of Montgomery, Maryland serves as an example of how these ideas can be put into practice, as the city has added “density bonuses” to its zoning codes that allow builders to build more units if a certain percentage of the units are dedicated to affordable housing. In this way, the county creates a financial interest for local developers to promote equality and access.
While there is likely to be a strong legal and political backlash from property owners if these ideas are put into place and exclusionary zoning – which artificially inflates property values, is eliminated, Kahlenberg asserts that it is a necessary step toward addressing rising housing costs and ensuring affordable housing is available for all.