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Biden’s housing plan would take on systemic racism

The plan would not be enough to fix all of the nation’s housing problems, but it would certainly be a turning point.

The Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era program intended to combat racial segregation in suburban housing, saying it amounted to federal overreach into local communities.Justin T. Gellerson/NYT

With the nation facing the coronavirus pandemic, a struggling economy, and a growing movement for racial justice, there is a lot to demand from Joe Biden should the presumed Democratic presidential nominee win the election in November. And though his administration will probably be preoccupied trying to emulate Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first 100 days — an expectation it will surely fall short of — there is one policy area that should be central to Biden’s agenda because it lies at the intersection of so many of the problems afflicting the country: housing.

There is the immediate housing threat that the high unemployment rate has imposed — the looming eviction crisis. But beyond that, US housing policy has been at the core of the structural racism that people have been protesting in the streets for two months now. It has created and reinforced a segregated society, resulting in a slew of de facto separate and unequal institutions, from schools to policing to the criminal justice system. And just last week, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era housing rule designed to promote desegregation.

“When we talk about systemic racism, housing is a really key part of unpacking and interrupting that cycle,” said Olatunde Johnson, a law professor at Columbia University. That’s why Biden should pursue housing reform the way Barack Obama pursued health care. “This should be the linchpin” of any agenda looking to tackle structural racism, Johnson added.


Luckily, Biden has acknowledged the need for housing reform. Earlier this year, before most of these crises boiled to the surface, he released a housing plan that has generally been well received by experts. “My overall impression is positive,” said Johnson, who focuses on fair housing and antidiscrimination law. “It hits on a lot of key challenges.”


According to journalist Matthew Yglesias, Columbia University scholars found that under Biden’s housing plan, child poverty could be cut by a third. That finding shows just how much of a social determinant someone’s neighborhood can be, and how crucial better housing policy is to increasing economic mobility. Moreover, the plan would reduce racial wealth and opportunity gaps, and it might begin to address the housing affordability crisis that many cities across the country face. (In 2017, 48 percent of renter households in the United States were rent burdened — meaning that over 30 percent of their income was spent on housing — and about half of those were severely rent burdened, paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent. Homelessness has also been on the rise for the last three years.)

Biden’s plan would not be enough to fix all of the nation’s housing problems, but it would certainly be a turning point. “Federal money created segregation — developed a whole infrastructure of segregation — so you need a lot of federal might to begin to undo that on the state and local level,” Johnson said.

Indeed, the federal government engineered the segregated patterns Americans live in today. In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Administration ensured that suburbs were built for “whites only” by engaging in redlining, where the agency would refuse to insure mortgages in neighborhoods where Black people lived. In fact, the term “redlining” comes from the color-coded maps that the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created, where red-colored neighborhoods — those that were predominantly Black — were deemed the riskiest to invest in. In effect, Black people were excluded from the intergenerational wealth-building opportunities that home-owning in America presented.


“Most Americans’ wealth is located in their housing,” Johnson said. “And that was denied to African-Americans through redlining, and this isn’t just in the distant past.”

That’s why in order to reverse the patterns of segregation — which would, in turn, chip away at other areas of racial and economic inequality — the government needs to correct for past policies that only further marginalized Black Americans.

An ambitious housing plan — or a new Fair Housing Act — has the potential to steer the country away from disasters brought on by both the coronavirus pandemic and a centuries-old racist system. It would improve economic mobility, increase opportunity, and advance the cause of racial equality. So if Biden is looking for his Obamacare — a signature policy that could define his legacy — he shouldn’t look too far from where he and the rest of us have been spending most of our time: our homes.

Abdallah Fayyad is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at abdallah.fayyad@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @abdallah_fayyad.