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Fair housing creates stronger communities

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro announced policy changes on July 8. The new rules provide guidance to help cities achieve the promises of the Fair Housing Act.Associated Press

It’s an open secret that race and socioeconomic status too often determine one’s ZIP code — and that neighborhood too often determines one’s access to opportunities. The federal government recognizes that de facto segregation is a national challenge, and at heart, a violation of the Fair Housing Act. In response, the Obama administration issued new, more forceful guidelines, with carrots and sticks alike to motivate municipalities to pay close attention to the racial makeup of neighborhoods. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s new rule creates a clear mandate for better-integrated neighborhoods, to the extent that public housing is involved, by providing cities and towns with more data, combined with the threat of losing federal funding if huge disparities persist. Officials in Boston, and across Massachusetts, should embrace the rule’s goal of economic diversity.

The new policy comes after a major victory for equal housing opportunity and civil rights advocates. Last month, the Supreme Court upheld a “disparate impact” claim in a Texas housing case, ruling that policies and practices that cause racial discrimination and segregated housing patterns are still illegal even if there wasn’t an intent to discriminate.

The Obama administration’s guidance is meant to reinforce that fundamental tenet of fair housing. It’s not only equal access to affordable homes that constitutes fair housing — it’s also making available integrated, diverse communities that offer a mix of races and income levels. Because there were no real consequences, cities have been able to skirt this vital intent of the Fair Housing Act, placing a disproportionate amount of subsidized housing in poorer neighborhoods.


The effect was to cluster poverty even further. Socioeconomic segregation in Boston — and its growth — were graphically depicted in a Globe story earlier this month, showing stark differences in income level by neighborhood. In Boston, areas that most need public transportation are often the furthest away from it, a pattern that only creates hurdles to opportunity, and more poverty. At times, developers have been allowed to meet affordable-housing requirements by building those units in different parts of Boston than the market-rate units, entrenching segregation.

That way of thinking needs to change. Boston’s challenge goes well beyond providing low-income housing; the city also needs to take to heart the need for socioeconomic diversity. Mayor Marty Walsh has set a goal of 53,000 new housing units by 2030 across the income spectrum. The city needs to make sure that common fears — of gentrification in low-income neighborhoods, or of low-income neighbors in high-end areas — do not prevent the city from using that new housing to promote greater economic integration across the city.


HUD’s new rule mandates a 21st-century approach to a stubborn problem, providing data that cities and towns need so they can better track segregation in every neighborhood. That data, in turn, will likely point the way to public policy remedies for housing policy, zoning and financing laws, urban planning, and to better transportation tools, and more.

Of course, housing segregation doesn’t stop at the city borders. In order to truly live up to the spirit of the Fair Housing Act, the better-off communities in the Greater Boston area and suburbs have an important role to play in eliminating barriers for low-income families and people of color. HUD’s new rule will hold every community more accountable for making the region more integrated and helping provide more opportunity for all.


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