'Fair housing' gets new, expanded push

6/23/2014

By Ariel Hart

By Ariel Hart

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

(MCT)

ATLANTA — Forty-six years after the Fair Housing Act took aim at racial segregation and poverty in America, the federal government has declared the effort half-hearted and is setting out to fix it.

Within months, the Obama administration is expected to require local governments to devise new strategies to give people in poor, racially segregated areas better access to jobs, transportation and, particularly, good schools.

At stake locally are tens of millions of dollars in federal grants distributed across the region, from Atlanta to Marietta to Gwinnett County. If governments fail to satisfy the mandate, they could lose that money.

To date, few outside of Washington have even heard of the proposal. Where it is known, it tends to draw sharp reactions across the political spectrum: Liberals, who have waited decades for an administration with moxie enough to confront the issue, cheer it; conservatives blast it as an assault on local communities.

"It's really a major coup, provided that it has some teeth in it," said Gail Williams, executive director of Metro Fair Housing Services in Atlanta, an advocacy group that helps local governments comply with such rules.

"I'll wait and see," said Cobb County Commission Chairman Tim Lee, although he added that from what little he has heard, "I think it flies in the face of local control and home rule." If the feds use grant money to try to force change, he said, "they can take their money and put it somewhere else."

Officials at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — who would only talk about the new rule anonymously — insisted that they merely want to provide better demographic data for local jurisdictions to plan with. They said they're only formalizing a process to achieve what the law promised decades ago.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was one of that decade's signature civil rights laws.

Its intent, confirmed in some subsequent court decisions, was not just to prevent obvious discrimination, such as refusing to sell or rent homes to racial minorities. It can be read to take broad aim at the American ghetto, on the understanding that where a group of people lives can affect much more than the quality of their residences. Where they live can determine their opportunities in life: access to good jobs, quality schools and societal expectations that lift up or hold back children throughout their lives.

By that definition, things that may stand in the way of "fair housing" might include zoning that keeps apartments or affordable houses out of good neighborhoods. It might include a lack of public transportation from poor neighborhoods to the areas with jobs that pay well. It might include fewer and shabbier parks or weaker police protection in poor areas than affluent ones, or benign neglect of troubled public schools.

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Renee Elmore and Stephanie Flowers are case studies in why HUD says local governments need to do more to help those who want to help themselves.

Both are single mothers of young sons, living in the Pittsburgh neighborhood south of downtown Atlanta. In very different ways, each is going to extraordinary lengths to keep the neighborhood from holding her son back.

Elmore used to live in Atlantic Station. But she said the $2,000 she made each month bartending could not cover her $1,350 rent, after-hours day care for her 7-year-old son, Kovan, and classes at a trade school where she is studying to become a radiology technician.

"I needed to cut all of my bills in half," she said, "so my future could be better than my present."

She looked hard, and finally found an ad for a house that was affordable, thanks to federal subsidies and an active neighborhood association. She pays $672 a month — a typical rent for Pittsburgh — for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house, energy efficient to boot.

The catch is Pittsburgh: piles of trash; more vacant homes and lots than occupied houses; an elementary school with abysmal test scores. By day, men gather outside and lounge in armchairs. By night, as she drives home after work with her sleepy 7-year-old, women come and go from the house around the corner, occasionally buck naked.

Virtually every child lives with a single mother and lives in poverty. Fewer than 1 person in 10 has a college degree. Elmore's home, like most, is a fortress.

"The bars make me feel better," she said "I am so thrilled with this bubble."

But that's partly because she has constructed a life where she and her son spend hardly any time in the bubble. From 7 a.m. to past midnight during the school year, she is driving him between his prized slot in a charter school near the Turner Field ballpark and a 24-hour day care she found in Smyrna, then driving herself between radiology courses and tending bar, with naps in between when she can.

There was no way Kovan was going to Gideons Elementary, she said. She's seen how some students behave, and which groups aren't represented there.

"Every year of his life he's moving forward," Elmore said. At the charter school "he's learning Chinese." More importantly, she said, there are white kids in his classes; if he wants a corporate job later in life, he'll know how to talk to white people.

None of it would be possible without a car — something that roughly one-third of her neighbors lack.

A few blocks away, on Metropolitan Parkway, Stephanie Flowers has chosen to send her 8-year-old son, Marcus, to a local public school, Dunbar, which she believes is a bit better than Gideons. During the school year, she pays about $700 a month for extra tutoring to keep his math and reading skills up to acceptable levels.

She can only afford it because she lives in the house her grandmother bought and pays nothing on it.

She went to technical school to learn administrative skills and now has a decent job. She could leave Pittsburgh. But, she said, "Do you run? Or do you fight? I decided I was going to stay in the race."

She's clear on what happens to those who lack her resources and her determination, and especially to their kids: "You fall by the wayside."

That's what HUD hopes to change, to make it possible for those who lack advantages like cars or fully paid housing to get a leg up. For people like Elmore and Flowers, the new rule is supposed to make the climb at least a bit easier.

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One huge irony is that before 1968, a long string of federal actions fed black poverty and segregation in neighborhoods like Pittsburgh.

Beginning in the 1930s, the government promoted home ownership by insuring home loans for ordinary workers. But the Federal Housing Administration discouraged "the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended." The FHA also discouraged lending in neighborhoods with "inharmonious racial groups." Maps it used marked in red many black neighborhoods considered too risky for loans.

Starting in the 1950s the construction of the interstate highway system gave people who could afford cars a viable commute to suburban homes, aiding white flight. Those same highways often plowed through black city neighborhoods, as the Downtown Connector went through Atlanta's Sweet Auburn, producing blight. Blacks who could afford it moved to their own suburbs, but they were less likely to have the means.

Elizabeth Leeks, now 80, remembers a Pittsburgh years ago that wasn't rich but wasn't destitute either, offering grocery stores instead of convenience stores and a slew of businesses catering to working-class families. "All that's gone, completely gone," she said. "People that used to live here moved out of the area."

By the time the federal government tried to do an about-face, it faced fierce resistance to shaking up the patterns it had helped create.

Two years ago the investigative news organization ProPublica exposed how Richard Nixon's HUD secretary, George Romney — Mitt Romney's father — waged a secret, doomed campaign to enforce the provisions that are the target of the new HUD rule. Northerners and Southerners alike protested, and Nixon shut the effort down.

And now that HUD is trying again, even the rule's biggest advocates can't say how it will play out.

"I'm very passionate about this stuff, but I have to be honest with you that nobody quite knows in great detail what happens if the rule is finalized," said Michael Allen, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who won an important fair housing lawsuit in Westchester County, NY. He believes that victory was important in forcing HUD to formulate its new approach.

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