The Color of Power: How Local Control over Affordable Housing Shapes America

Residential segregation is baked into the American experience.

Residential segregation is baked into the American experience.The United States has a rich history of local, state, and federal laws deliberately designed to separate people by race and advance white supremacy.

Despite efforts to combat it going back 50 years, residential segregation stubbornly persists, leading to vastly different life outcomes for black and Latinx communities. In 1968, the Kerner Commission found the United States was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The Commission explained this “threaten(s) the future of every American.” In response, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act to outlaw housing discrimination in its many forms. Yet, little has changed since its passage.

Residential segregation endures, in part, because local communities hold tremendous power to veto proposals for affordable housing development. Because individuals and families in need of affordable housing are disproportionately people of color, local control over affordable housing development serves as a present-day proxy for racial discrimination. Homeowners and even renters who oppose affordable housing use their status to reinforce racial boundaries under the guise of preserving property values.

Throughout the country, from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Philadelphia, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) power plays out in many forms. The City of Chicago, however, teaches the master class for other local governments on how hyper-local control can maintain residential segregation and block affordable housing. In a decades-long practice that has systemically preserved racial segregation across Chicago communities, local city council members, particularly those members representing predominately white neighborhoods, use their power — identified as “aldermanic prerogative” — to block family affordable housing developments. Aldermanic prerogative allows council members to maintain control over their wards by vesting in them virtually all authority over zoning, planning, city financing, and city-owned lots. Other council members, the city’s mayor, and city departments overwhelmingly assent to this power, even though it isn’t granted by legislation.

When local governments cede to the NIMBY demands of white communities, injustice results. Local political structures that sanction racial bias and the desire for neighborhood preservation shape the racial boundaries of communities and dictate who may live where. Decision-making power is concentrated among those with political capital, at the expense of low-income residents of color who have little say in where and how they live, creating a vastly unjust society. This inequity stretches beyond housing. As Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, the educator and psychologist who along with his wife Mamie originated the famous doll studies on the harmful effects of racism in black children cited in the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education noted, “[r]acial segregation, like all other forms of cruelty and tyranny, debases all human beings — those who are its victims, those who victimize, and in quite subtle ways those who are merely accessories.”

The federal government can require state and local governments to take active steps to dismantle policies and practices that perpetuate residential segregation. Local governments have long neglected to fulfill their civil rights obligations by failing to ensure more equitable, affordable housing opportunities for families and by neglecting to balance the power dynamics involved in community planning. It’s deeply troubling that U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson recently announced a rollback of his agency’s power to advance balanced living patterns and civil rights. Carson instead granted local governments more control, essentially handing a blank check to government officials who want to maintain residential segregation and ignore civil rights laws.

We must dismantle and replace local control with comprehensive, city-wide planning that advances racial equity as a central priority. Instituting a centralized, objective zoning process would increase transparency and accountability. Moreover, laws that block NIMBYism also have the potential to actively alter the impact of local opposition. As a nation, we must commit ourselves to justice and equity and finally create change that affords everyone, whoever they are, the opportunity to live wherever they choose.

About the Author

Kate Walz
Kate Walz
Kate Walz

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All people should have the right to a safe, stable home to build better futures for themselves and their families.

Shelter is not only a basic human need, it is also critical to people’s ability to pursue and attain economic stability.

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