New pressure for cities to end segregation in housing

HUD to apply stricter guidelines to ensure more fairness for Blacks


WASHINGTON — “Show Me a Hero,” a new HBO miniseries, takes us back to the late 1980s, when the city of Yonkers, N.Y., was under a federal order to desegregate — or face massive fines. The show tracks the story of the city riven by race. There are riots. There are pipe bombs. There are death threats.

Billie Rowan, played by Dominique Fishback, waits for her name to be called in the housing lottery in HBO’s miniseries “Show Me a Hero.’’(COURTESY OF HBO)
Billie Rowan, played by Dominique Fishback, waits for her name to be called in the housing lottery in HBO’s miniseries “Show Me a Hero.’’

Nearly 30 years later, many U.S. cities remain deeply segregated despite federal and state government efforts, say sociologists who have researched housing patterns. And now, municipalities face more pressure from the federal government to step up their efforts to break down segregation, which, social scientists say, affects African-Americans more than any other racial or ethnic group.

In July, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced strict new requirements that local governments assess fair housing in their communities, publicly report details of segregation and pockets of poverty, and provide detailed plans on what they are going to do about it. If they fail to comply, local governments risk losing millions of dollars in HUD funding for community development.

Still exists
The rules, said Douglas Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton University, will hold local governments more accountable for concentrations of segregated living — even for middle-class African-American concentrations.

“If you look at a Black, middle-class neighborhood, it doesn’t have the same level of income, services or quality of education that a White person of the same income would enjoy,” said Massey, co-author of the 1993 book, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.”

“And the barriers to entry in more affluent White sectors remain quite high.”

The new rules arrive at a time when some social scientists say segregation has only intensified — even as the country becomes less White. Complicating things, some of the country’s most diverse cities — municipalities with large non-White populations — are among the most segregated.

Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee and St. Louis are classic examples of this. And cities with the smallest non-White populations, such as Lincoln, Neb.; Anchorage, Alaska; and Irvine, Calif., appear integrated because their very few residents of color are scattered rather than clustered.

Wealth gap
Segregation is complex and pervasive. Despite significant gains by middle-class Blacks since the 1970s, segregation continues to hurt them in a variety of ways, sociologists say, affecting everything from home values to health to access to quality public schools. Separate does not mean equal.

According to John Logan, a sociology professor at Brown University, the average upper-middle-class Black family lives in a much poorer neighborhood than the average working-class White family. White families making less than $40,000 live in wealthier neighborhoods than Black and Latino families earning almost twice as much, Logan’s research finds.

Although many African-Americans and Latinos are moving to the suburbs, Logan said these groups are often denied access to largely White neighborhoods, which have not changed much since 1980.

Generational problem
The vast majority of African-American families in poor neighborhoods have lived in similarly poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, though they might have moved from one place to another, said Kalima Rose, a senior director at PolicyLink, which advocates for fair public infrastructure. The same is only true for about half of white families living in poor neighborhoods, Rose said.

There’s also a big difference between a truly integrated city — where people of different racial groups live and work together — and a city with a large, diverse minority population, researchers say. A diverse place has sizable proportions of different racial and ethnic groups, but they don’t necessarily live and work together or have equal access to opportunities.

Laxed enforcement
The federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 not only outlawed discrimination in the sale and rental markets, but ordered government to “affirmatively further fair housing.”

But from the start, federal enforcement has been lax, housing advocates such as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund allege. Since 1974, HUD has given cities and states $137 billion in grants to fight discrimination, but rarely has withheld funding from localities that violate the law.

And in some instances, HUD itself has been accused of housing discrimination. In 1995, the Legal Defense Fund sued HUD, alleging that the agency had created and perpetuated racial segregation in Baltimore’s public housing. The case was settled in 2012.

Local governments have often flouted or fought fair housing efforts. And civil rights groups have often resorted to suing HUD in an attempt to get it to enforce the law.

Costly challenge
The new HUD rules aim to set criteria that must be met by recipients of federal housing grants. What isn’t clear is how the agency will define segregated areas and what metrics it will use to assess a community’s efforts to make progress toward eliminating them.

The new rules are going to be a costly challenge for many cities. Although the nation’s big city mayors support fair housing, some of what will be required will depend on housing in the private sector and beyond their control, said an official who works closely with the mayors. “We’re just going to have to see how difficult this is,” said the official, who didn’t want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

HUD officials are, however, clear in their intent: Jurisdictions must closely track housing disparities in their communities and identify barriers to integration and resulting barriers to opportunity in education and employment.



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