Everyone deserves a home in a safe community with the resources necessary to thrive. Where individuals live impacts every aspect of their lives — access to good jobs, high-performing schools, public transportation, safe streets, and more. However, because of legal and extralegal housing discrimination, Black Americans exist in a dual housing market, meaning they pay a higher proportion of their income for lower quality housing in neighborhoods with diminished access to goods, services, and economic opportunities.
Indeed, the historic process of redlining ensured that the Black people who were forced to reside in overcrowded, segregated Black urban neighborhoods could not receive the financial investments they needed to maintain their homes and businesses. Today, most of the neighborhoods redlined over 80 years ago remain minority neighborhoods with primarily low-to-moderate income households.
The Fair Housing Act, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, contains a mandate that recipients of federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds — which include many states and localities — must take “meaningful actions” to “affirmatively further fair housing (AFFH).” This AFFH obligation means that, in addition to combatting discrimination, funding recipients must proactively take measures that foster inclusive communities, help remedy years of segregation and its consequences, and eliminate barriers that diminish access to opportunity based on one’s race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, familial status, or disability status.
However, 50 years after the AFFH obligation was established, there are still extensive barriers to quality housing for many groups protected by AFFH. For example, a 2020 National Fair Housing Alliance report indicated that the annual incidence of housing discrimination exceeds four million cases. Moreover, according to research published in 2015, 53% of city-dwelling Black residents still live in metropolitan areas that are hyper-segregated or highly segregated.
The Obama administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development recognized that far more needed to be done to address these long-lasting consequences of housing segregation and discrimination. As a result, HUD developed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which was finalized in July 2015, to help ensure robust implementation of the AFFH mandate. The rule represented the broadest action the federal government had ever taken to hold local jurisdictions accountable for ensuring fair housing opportunity for all.
The AFFH rule, by means of its Assessing Fair Housing (AFH) tool, requires jurisdictions receiving HUD dollars to plan comprehensively to remove longstanding barriers to housing access erected by public and private actors, eliminate housing opportunity disparities, meet housing needs, and further desegregate neighborhoods across the country. As the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development when the rule was completed, my team and I had hoped that communities would use the AFFH planning process to redouble their efforts to make equal housing opportunity a reality for Black Americans and other disadvantaged persons.
Our hopes were short-lived. The Trump administration delayed AFFH’s implementation in January 2018 and later sought to repeal it entirely. The administration’s hostility to the rule and the tendency of many local jurisdictions, even well-meaning ones, to reject what they considered burdensome new federal planning requirements, seemed to spell the demise of AFFH altogether. That changed in early 2021, however, as the Biden administration revamped and reinstituted AFFH, embracing the rule’s original goals and promising to support local jurisdictions in their planning efforts.
Now that some time has passed since AFFH’s reinstatement, we can begin to examine how local communities are making use of the AFH tool. To do so, I interviewed two individuals who participated in Los Angeles County’s recent AFFH process. Shashi Hanuman, who is now the Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Project, worked on Los Angeles County’s AFFH process in her previous position as the directing attorney of Public Counsel’s Community Development Project. Connie Chung serves as the Deputy Director of the Advanced Planning Division of the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning. Their experiences, while focused on Los Angeles County, offer insight for other jurisdictions seeking to fulfill the goals of AFFH through robust and effective planning.
In my interviews, I wanted to zero in on three questions. First, how are local jurisdictions striking a balance between boosting access to housing in “high opportunity neighborhoods” while also enhancing quality of life and preserving the cultural character of longstanding neighborhoods? Second, how are participants in the AFH process are thinking through how both obstacles and opportunities beyond housing factor into the planning effort? Finally, what best practices should advocates and policymakers pursue to ensure AFFH truly serves its purpose of ending housing discrimination and fostering inclusive communities?
Before we examine these questions further, some background will help provide context. Los Angeles is the sixth most racially-segregated metropolitan area in the United States. This high level of residential segregation, combined with the unequal distribution of resources across communities, creates a system that has deeply harmful socioeconomic implications for already-marginalized groups.
For example, a child born today in a neighborhood in south L.A. County (Westmont) can expect to live nearly 14 years less than a child born in a community in west L.A. county (Malibu). Moreover, neighboring cities in the county experience stark economic disparities that reflect deep racial inequalities. Inglewood, in southwestern L.A. County, is the second most segregated American city. 40% of its residents are Black (4% are white), and the median salary is $58K annually, with 15% of residents living below the poverty line. Meanwhile, in nearby Santa Barbara, the city’s population is 56% white (and 2% Black), residents have a median income of $82K per year, and 12% of the residents live below the poverty line.
L.A. County’s planning team is charged with designing processes and practices to interrupt these longstanding housing patterns that, among other consequences, create a lower life expectancy for many youth of color and exacerbate economic hardship for historically marginalized communities. In California, the Housing Element is a local community’s primary means to engage in long-term comprehensive planning around housing needs. California law requires local communities to update the Housing Element of their General Plan — a broader blueprint for the locality’s growth that addresses eight issue areas, including housing — at least once every eight years. In 2018, California’s legislature codified AFFH and formally integrated it into the Housing Element planning process for all updates due on or after January 1, 2021.
Los Angeles County, America’s most populous county, is comprised of 88 cities with a combined population of 10.1 million people. The cities within the county pursue their own General Plans with citywide Housing Elements, so the focus of the County’s Housing Element — and of the AFFH planning process within it — was on the unincorporated areas inside the county. Los Angeles County launched its latest planning effort to update its Housing Element in 2021. And, in a 2020 letter to HUD providing comment on the AFFH rule, the county made its enduring commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing clear:
“Los Angeles … expressly urges the Department to reinstate the 2015 AFFH rule and Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) Plan process … The 2015 AFFH rule was a critical and necessary step to assist the federal government to more proactively address and enforce fair housing … The urgency to assist residents with their housing needs and ensure legal protections are provided and protected is of most importance to Los Angeles,” the letter noted. “The city, like the rest of the state, is experiencing a severe shortage of housing units that are affordable to low- and middle-income households. In addition to this challenge, residents are suffering from accessing viable housing options or experiencing difficulties in maintaining their housing due to fair housing violations and existing barriers.”
It continued, “… Although HUD suspended the approval of AFH Plans soon after Los Angeles’ submission, Los Angeles has actively incorporated many of the goals and strategies into its subsequent Five-Year 2018-2022 ConPlan [which directs the investment of federal affordable housing and community development grant dollars] … [And], as the City of Los Angeles embarks upon the planning and development process of the California state-required 2021-2029 Housing Element, the AFH goals and strategies will serve as the focus and core base in the planning efforts for this significant policy document that will help guide the city’s housing needs and growth plans in the new eight-year plan.”
This unwavering commitment was evident from the start during the county’s 2021 Housing Element update process. As Hanuman explains, before this process even began, it was preceded by an analysis to adopt an AFFH implementation plan to analyze fair housing needs that informed the commitments that Los Angeles County eventually included in its Housing Element proposal. Officials sought public input for both plans, and this input played a critical role in their development — an important theme that emerged during both interviews.
Published: Dec. 16, 2022