What’s the first word that pops into your mind when you hear “choice”? For me, it’s “freedom.” Living in “choice” implies variety: being able to pick from a whole smorgasbord of foods, clothes, TV shows, toothpaste, ways to get to work, musical instruments to try out in fifth grade. “Choice” is one of those words that everybody likes.
How mobile we are or how much money we have limits our choices. When we have five dollars in our pocket, there’s not much we can buy. Government agencies and private groups like H.O.M.E. try to boost “choice” for people with less money by lowering prices or raising incomes; or to help people with disabilities navigate within and outside their homes.
What happens when the “choice” about your life is not made by you but by someone else? That’s what fair housing laws are meant to remedy. Making it illegal to discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, presence of children, or disability (as in federal law) is something everyone understands.
But here’s the rub: the federal Fair Housing Act also requires that communities actually take steps to desegregate. “Affirmatively furthering fair housing” (AFFH), as this mandate is called, is meant to be transformative, “replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns” and “transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.”
This is an aspirational statement. I read this and think of H.O.M.E., which is all about “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”
This federal AFFH mandate could disappear, however, if we don’t speak out by mid-March 2020.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is proposing to change that definition of AFFH – ironically, in the name of “choice.” The new definition would only be about “allowing individuals and families to have the opportunity and options to live where they choose, within their means, without unlawful discrimination.”
In other words, HUD is proposing to focus narrowly on a person’s choice, not on transforming communities so that everyone lives in an “area of opportunity.” Transformation means taking active steps to remove decades-old policies and programs that, say, effectively quarantined African Americans in certain neighborhoods and then stripped their wealth.
We know community matters. As long as your “zip code decides your destiny,” as President Obama once said, we live in a state of inequity. Just check out this “opportunity atlas” of towns and neighborhoods around the country to see the disparities.
For “choice” to be meaningful, it has to be just. And for housing choice to be just, it can’t be merely about freedom of movement or access to affordable housing. (The HUD proposal, unfortunately, is silent on the concentration of new affordable housing in one neighborhood, which has been considered a barrier to fair housing).
HUD just released this draft rule in mid-January and comments are due March 16th. You can submit a comment through Fight for Housing Justice or on your own to make sure that AFFH continues to be about integration as essential to housing choice.
Dr. King said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.” The same can be said of fair housing. Housing “choice” is not merely the absence of discrimination: it is the presence of community.