As longtime observers can tell you, Connecticut can be slow to respond to commands from on-high. Whether it’s the court-ordered Sheff vs. O’Neill decision to end “racial isolation” in the state’s public schools or the federal Fair Housing Act — both well intentioned, to be sure — we independent-minded Yankees don’t especially like being told what to do.
But now the Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development is taking the FHA one step further, unveiling something called the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. You heard right. It’s not an “act” duly voted into law by a legislature, as the FHA was, but a set of rules handed down by unelected policymakers in the FHA office.
The idea of the AFFH rules is to realize the FHA’s unfulfilled promise by equipping “communities that receive HUD funding with data and tools to help them meet long-standing fair housing obligations in their use of HUD funds.”
The rules will help local zoning and planning boards “proactively” overcome “historic patterns of segregation … and foster inclusive communities for all.” Sounds harmless enough. But what happens if the communities don’t make sufficient progress in meeting those “obligations?” Well, they can lose their federal funding.
It is one thing for the government to declare that no one can refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, as the FHA does. It is another thing entirely to demand that communities analyse reams of data from the federal government and come up with a plan to realize some dreamy utopian goal.
Evidently, the logic of the rule’s authority rests on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that discrimination charges could be based on nothing more than a determination that a policy has a “disparate impact” on racial minorities as opposed to an actual intent to discriminate.
The problem, of course, is that affordable housing projects — which are typically lower-income housing — are rarely placed in upper-income or high-opportunity areas. The middle and upper classes do not want to see the value of their properties decline. For the vast majority of us, our homes are the biggest investment we will ever have and we depend on them to make our retirements more secure, among other things. So when a proposal that adversely affects our property values is put on the table, we lawyer up — not in most cases in the name of classism, but out of avoiding economic disruption.
So how would the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule affect Connecticut? Judging by the numbers, you’d have to think the consequences — if indeed HUD enforces the rule —will be substantial.
More so even than most states, Connecticut is very much the land of the haves and have-nots. Last time I checked, we continue to have the largest academic achievement gap in the nation between minority students and their peers. Not coincidentally, we also have the largest income gap between rich and poor.
Branding Connecticut as “one of the most racially, ethnically and economically segregated states in the United States,” attorney Erin Boggs, executive director of Open Communities Alliance, revealed some startling statistics at an event in Norwalk City Hall in May.
The state has 82,000 subsidized housing units but 66 percent of that housing is located in only 6 percent of the state. The inequality and racial isolation is even worse in Fairfield County than in the rest of Connecticut. About 30 percent of students in Norwalk qualify for free or reduced lunch, but in nearby Westport only 2 percent qualify, with 4 percent in Darien and 1 percent in Wilton.
And because of what some observers have called “exclusionary zoning practices” and “de facto housing segregation,” 81 percent of blacks and 79 percent of Connecticut’s Latinos live in lower-opportunity neighborhoods, compared to 25 percent of whites. Sounds a lot like the “disparate impact” cited in the U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Add to that the state’s sluggishness in complying with Sheff and with the 1990 state affordable housing law, and you have a place that is highly vulnerable to the machinations of a federal bureaucracy determined to get the best bang for its buck.
How much money does Connecticut stand to lose if the suits in Washington decide we’re not meeting their goals? For starters, HUD has “invested” $190 million in the state since 2010 through its Community Development Block Grant Program.
That’s money a cash-strapped state like Connecticut can ill afford to lose. We’d better get with the program — or stop sucking on the teat of the feds for housing assistance.
It’ll all boil down to which option lawmakers hate most: taking the politically unpopular step of strong-arming upper-income communities into housing the masses; or losing hundreds of millions in revenue. I have no idea which way they will go, but one thing’s for sure: it’ll be fun to watch.
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