Habitat’s Christopher Ptomey on the fight for fair housing policies in 2018

Advocating for fair housing policies

Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, where do barriers to fair housing still exist, and what are the best ways we can affect change?

Christopher Ptomey, Habitat for Humanity’s senior director of government relations, is on the front lines of housing policy, working in coalition with local Habitat organizations around the country, as well as other fair and affordable housing organizations.

Q: The passage of the Fair Housing Act 50 years ago was an attempt by the country to right some wrongs when it came to housing, by barring discrimination when it comes to renting or buying housing. But we know it didn’t solve all problems. In 2018, how do you see fair housing play into the national policy environment today?

A: I don’t see policy as actively driving segregation as it has in the past, and there are good things in place to push back against discrimination. Which is all fantastic, but it isn’t enough. There are folks who are still left behind.

Even though they’re not being actively discriminated against, they’re in a position where they still don’t have access to the same kind of opportunity as folks who have generations of homeownership in their family.

Families who have that history have built wealth over generations, benefiting from equity growth as well as other housing related benefits like the mortgage interest tax deduction. They’ve been able to invest and grow that money over the years. For people whose families were actively discriminated against in housing, such opportunities have been extremely limited.

I think we’re at a point where if we’re going to continue to move forward in policy beyond simply preventing that act of discrimination, there has to be an affirmative approach. That’s something the Fair Housing Act always required but was never fully implemented until the last administration, and now we have the current administration that has put the implementation on hold again.

Q: As I understand it, the last administration put in place the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule to implement a piece of the Fair Housing Act that, as you say, had never been done before. It requires communities to take active measures to combat segregation, rather than just prohibit discriminatory actions. This rule actually says communities have to actively work against segregation in communities, is that correct?

A: Yes, or at least that they have to have a plan to do so that is based on actual data. Jurisdictions have been required since the ’90s to affirm that they’re actively addressing residential segregation, but they never had to lay out how the plan would work or what the data is based upon.

One of the strengths of the attempt to implement the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development began providing communities with data to help them evaluate what the segregation problem looks like in their communities.

A lot communities before have said, “Yeah, we’d like to do something about this,” and “we have a general idea of where the ‘other side of the tracks’ may be.” But they didn’t necessarily have sufficient information to map out a specific plan to advance integration.

HUD, to implement the rules, said, “We’re going to give you the data you need to include a viable strategy in your consolidated plan.” I think at the end of the day a lot of the jurisdictions appreciated opportunity to look at the issue in an informed way.

Now, analyzing the issue and addressing it are two enormously different things.

Public policy must balance the rights of current homeowners with the need to address a history of public policy that has unfairly and illegally prevented many households the opportunity to become homeowners in successful neighborhoods in the first place. This is an extremely difficult balance to strike and is probably why the AFFH has not been fully implemented.

It is a major disappointment that the current administration has suspended AFFH implementation. This was the first major progress in fair housing in a generation, and this delay will only make it harder to further break down the barriers to residential integration.

Q: The primary function of the Fair Housing Act was banning discrimination of renting or selling homes based on the protected classes: race, religion, color and creed. Are there ways discrimination is manifested other than through the sale and rental of homes?

A: There certainly have been over time.

You had informal discrimination such as real estate brokers and agents who were offering access to certain communities only for certain people. You had segregation in schools, which drove residential segregation to a certain degree as well. And zoning is always an issue.

If you say every residential lot has to be five acres, there are only certain folks who can afford to have a five-acre lot. If you say it’s all single-family disconnected homes, that low density is going to drive up the price.

Q: What’s the political climate for fair housing issues and fair access issues?

A: I think there’s appetite for it in the advocacy community.

Most members of Congress understand that access to decent housing is a significant problem, but the fair housing aspect is not an area that many have been willing to wade into. Recent characterizations of fair housing law as social engineering or experimentation are reflective of a certain perspective that’s all too common but often based on a misunderstanding of the roots of segregation.

Q: Do you think there’s more of an opportunity at the state and local level?

A: Whether it is through increased funding for housing trust funds, increased numbers of housing vouchers, zoning changes to increase density, or a myriad of other interventions, locally is where you can really make a difference in a big way in a short period of time.

The local level is also where you have the opportunity to educate people in a concentrated way about a problem and persuade them to be supportive of needed solutions. It’s much harder to educate a nation than it is to educate a town or a neighborhood. Once we start seeing that happen more at the local level, we’ll start to see housing trickle up as a greater concern at the federal level, as well.

Q: What role does Habitat play in the fair housing discussion?

A: We have such a good story because we do build in different kinds of neighborhoods and serve a diverse set of families in a variety of ways. We certainly have a very strong record of enabling homeownership in minority communities.

Our local Habitats strongly support and seek to advance understanding of the value of diversity more broadly in the neighborhoods where they work. I think we also are well positioned to have a greater influence on the broader public and policy conversations around diversity and fairness.

There’s a strong interest in our network to be leaders in fair housing and to leverage the Habitat experience to demonstrate its value. That’s a great thing. We need to be that voice and encourage others to contribute to the conversation.

Q: That leads into to my next and last question. What is the role of Habitat locally across the country?

A: Habitat works directly with local governments, often receiving funding and almost always involved with planning, zoning and local regulation, and the time has come to bring the issue of fair housing to these conversations and relationships.

We need to be very intentional, because these conversations rarely happen on their own. As local housing leaders, Habitat needs to think about fair housing, talk about it and advocate for policies to achieve better residential integration.

At the end of the day, that’s the best way Habitat can influence the issue: talk about the issue, take action to solve it, and invite others to come along.

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