Tract Housing (Shutterstock)
Most of Connecticut is a great place to live and raise children. Almost 60 percent of our state ranks high or very high in opportunity as measured by national data on education, employment, crime, and other factors. Only 2 percent of Connecticut ranks very low in opportunity. But fully half of our black and Latino residents live in that very low opportunity 2 percent, and 73 percent live in the fifth of the state that is low to very low in opportunity.
“Out of Balance,” a report just released by the Open Communities Alliance, shows how federal and state housing assistance perpetuates this segregation.
For much of the 20th century, the federal government explicitly encouraged segregation. When the United States began guaranteeing mortgages in the wake of the Great Depression, it refused to guarantee housing in mixed-race areas. This meant that families of color could not get financing on the same terms as whites, radically depressing their ability to buy homes and the value of the homes they owned. Even worse, as suburban multihome developments exploded in the 1940s, the U.S. demanded that developments include racially restrictive covenants to secure financing. These policies shut nonwhite families out of middle-class suburban housing, and deprived the integrated urban areas where they lived of the flood of capital and investment following World War II.
Although our governments no longer demand segregation, housing assistance continues to confine low-income people of color to the low opportunity areas of Connecticut. Federal, state and municipal governments subsidize housing with rental vouchers, tax credits and grants to developers, and publicly owned or sponsored housing projects. People of color are far more likely to be eligible for these programs. For each of these programs, the largest portion of housing units are in very low opportunity areas, and almost all are in very low, low, or moderate opportunity areas.
Since 1987, for example, 75 percent of units financed with federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) have been in low or very low opportunity areas, 12 percent in moderate opportunity areas, and only 12 percent have been in high or very high opportunity areas. The problem is not improving with time. Since 2011, 78 percent of new LIHTC units have been in very low or low opportunity areas, and only 11 percent in high opportunity areas. The state CHAMP program, created in 2012 to provide grants to add affordable units to existing multifamily buildings, shows similar disparities. Rental assistance vouchers follow the same pattern. Eighty-one percent of state rental assistance program voucher holders, for example, live in low or very low opportunity areas, and only 7 percent in high or very high opportunity areas.
This opportunity segregation need not be the result of intentional discrimination. Zoning laws in high opportunity areas often prevent building multifamily housing there. Rental caps and area restrictions on rental vouchers often make it impossible to use them in higher opportunity areas. Some families coming from low opportunity areas may also choose to remain there.
While the causes are complex, the impact is clear. Segregation of housing subsidies is bad for families and bad for Connecticut. Where you grow up influences everything from education to marriage to life expectancy. Low-income children who move from low to higher opportunity areas do far better on all of these measures. But the pattern of housing assistance makes this almost impossible in Connecticut. This is part of why Connecticut has among the poorest cities, least affordable suburbs, and greatest education achievement gaps in the nation. It hurts the health of our cities and the employability of our population.
It also is just plain illegal. The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits not just intentional discrimination but also policies that have a disparate impact on different racial groups. The FHA also requires federal and state governments to affirmatively further equality in access to opportunity. Concentrating housing assistance in the lowest opportunity areas of the state blatantly violates these mandates. It is time for all responsible governments to take a hard look at how to bring subsidies back into balance.