Making Housing Affordable to All

Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, residents are still key to solving housing issues.
October 9, 2018
The median home price is $830,000 in Seattle. Devid Kidd
By Lisa Wong  |  Senior Fellow, Governing Institute
Lisa Wong is a senior fellow with the Governing Institute and former mayor of Fitchburg, Mass.
Race-Informed Resident-Involved

Seattle and Boston have a lot in common. Both cities boast beautiful coastal locations, top colleges and a bustling tech sector. If Amazon picks Boston as the home for its second headquarters, the two cities will have even more in common. Unfortunately, the two cities are also grappling with a legacy of housing inequities.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which was passed to promote equity and prevent discrimination against people in protected classes. Today, cities still need comprehensive and proactive ways to combat discrimination and development pressures that can lead to more inequalities.

The demand for housing and boom in luxury development exacerbate inequity. The Boston Globe published an article about Boston’s newest neighborhood, Seaport, aptly titled “A Brand New Boston, Even Whiter than the Old.” The 1,000-acre site, boosted by more than $18 million in public investment, could have been designed for diversity but instead now has a population that is 89 percent white with the highest median income in the city.

City planners, developers, lenders and residents all have a role to play. Unchecked market forces that are solely developer driven may result in profit-driven decision-making rather than considering community needs. Resident involvement is key to ensure these needs are known and met.

In the most recent Equipt to Innovate survey, Seattle received top marks for being resident-involved. The city proactively engages residents to tackle some of its toughest and most persistent challenges such as housing.

Seattle, like Boston and many other cities, grapples with historical, and in some areas, increasing segregation of neighborhoods. Practices like incorporating restrictions or guidelines into deeds and covenants, as well as redlining, made certain neighborhoods off limits to minorities. Even though these practices were banned decades ago, the problem still persists. In Baltimore, approximately 70 percent of formerly redlined communities are still low income and predominantly made up of minority populations.

The racial wealth gap and even self-segregation exacerbate the problem. The Center for Investigative Reporting discovered “modern-day redlining” in 61 metro areas and evidence of racial discrimination in the lending process to African Americans and Latinos.

Seattle Planning Director Sam Assefa, who was appointed in 2016, created a new division called Equitable Development Strategies. And the city recently released new guidelines for how developers need to engage the community early and equitably. These guidelines include implementing an outreach plan and calendar, using a broad range of mediums for outreach from in-person events to digital, and providing additional information and resources depending on the neighborhood, with particular attention paid to identified “Equity Areas.”

It is too soon to see if these guidelines are effective in ensuring housing development is accessible to residents of all incomes and backgrounds, but requiring early, mandatory and neighborhood-specific resident involvement is a good start.