In the spring of 1968, just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed the last great piece of civil rights era legislation: the Fair Housing Act.
The aim was to disrupt an insidious pattern of residential segregation that had confined generations of black and brown families to high-poverty neighborhoods.
The law, and the regulations that flowed from it, barred discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. But they did more than ban racist practices. They also mandated that the federal government take active steps to integrate segregated communities in order to undo a legacy of discrimination.
One of Washington’s most powerful tools to do so is the billions of dollars it spends subsidizing housing for low-income Americans. Much of that money flows through state and local agencies — and those agencies, when they accept the funds, accept the legal requirement to integrate.
Here in Massachusetts, federal housing dollars are scattered among a whole host of agencies — all of them obligated to provide poor black and brown children with greater access to the Commonwealth’s better-off communities.
But the most important, perhaps, is Governor Charlie Baker’s sprawling Department of Housing and Community Development. And right now, it is skipping out on an important opportunity to fulfill its duty.
DHCD uses its federal funding to pay for one of the largest housing voucher programs in the country — distributing “Section 8”-style vouchers to 22,000 low-income families, who use them to rent private-market apartments all over the state.
Vouchers, of course, are portable. They can be taken anywhere. That means there is enormous potential for the sort of integration imagined by the Fair Housing Act. But data show that most recipients don’t use vouchers to rent apartments in the suburban towns that were historically closed off to poor black and brown families. Instead, they tend to congregate in poor, racially isolated neighborhoods.
For instance, a Globe report in 2016, drawing on research from Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management, showed that just 19 percent of Greater Boston voucher holders live in “high-opportunity” neighborhoods, with ready access to jobs, healthy food, and quality schools. Eighty-one percent live in “moderate-” and “low-opportunity” neighborhoods.
There are lots of reasons for that, as the Globe has reported: a lack of familiarity with leafier communities, for instance, and restrictions on how long a family can take to find a place. The threat of an expiring voucher — recipients often get only 60 days to find housing — tends to concentrate the search on low-income neighborhoods that a family has known their whole lives.
One of the most important reasons, though, is this: Administrators like DHCD have long attached a flat-rate value to the vouchers — $2,413, for instance, for a two-bedroom apartment in Boston and several surrounding communities.
The rate is based on a large geographic area — Greater Boston, in this case — but does not recognize how rental costs can vary dramatically within a region. That $2,413 may be enough for an apartment in Dorchester, for instance, but it won’t get families very far in Charlestown or the city’s well-to-suburbs — the very places that fair-housing laws are meant to open up to black and brown families.
A couple of years ago, the federal government launched an initiative to address that problem — imposing it on some agencies and making it available to others, like DHCD. It’s called the Small Area Fair Market Rents program, and it tailors the value of vouchers to much smaller geographies — neighborhoods.
Find an apartment in Dorchester or Roxbury, with this system in place, and your voucher would be worth one amount. Land a place in Charlestown or Newton, though, where the rents are higher, and the voucher would be worth more.
Tailoring the voucher value to neighborhoods is in keeping with the 1968 law’s original intent. And the value of giving low-income children access to better-off neighborhoods has only grown clearer in recent years.
Landmark research by economists at Harvard University and elsewhere, combining millions of data points, has shown that poor children who grow up in better-off neighborhoods earn substantially more, as adults, than poor youths reared in worse-off communities — 31 percent more, according to one study.
And yet, in recent weeks, DHCD quietly decided that it will not adopt Small Area Fair Market Rents — suggesting there’s not enough evidence, yet, on how such an approach would play out on the ground.
One can only hope there isn’t a more cynical motivation behind the decision: “protecting” better-off communities from low-income families.
The decision is all the more disappointing because the Boston Housing Authority, which oversees 13,000 vouchers of its own, has gone in the opposite direction — implementing Small Area rents this month.
The governor can do better. And given the size of the gap between the haves and have-nots in this state, he must.