Cities Leading on Fair Housing

Cities across the country have demonstrated a commitment to fair housing. The federal government’s interpretation of  the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” provisions in the Fair Housing Act has changed significantly over the last 50 years. As the federal landscape around housing issues continues to fluctuate, cities have a new opportunity to lead, as they address the historical factors that impact today’s housing challenges.

In their 2018 state of the city speeches, mayors from upstate New York to Oregon and Texas have indicated a strong focus on ensuring residents have equitable access to affordable, safe housing. A first step to developing the right tools that will bring racial equity and fairness to housing access is building a more comprehensive understanding of the history that led up to today. Through NLC’s Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) initiative, city leaders have the opportunity to receive training on this history and to participate in initiatives like the W.K. Kellogg funded Municipal Learning Community for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation.

Recognizing the historical factors that have impacted housing discrimination — and continue to situate residents in inequitable environments based on neighborhood race and income level — some mayors have used their speeches to educate residents about the way structural racism has played out through tactics like redlining. The Lancaster, Pennsylvania, mayor acknowledged that “Moments of decline — in the form of scars — remain, too, fueled by policies of redlining and racism. Lancaster Square’s East side in the wake of “urban renewal;” the destruction of entire streets, and whole neighborhoods in the Southeast, which for generations has been the starting place for virtually every culture, ethnicity, religion and language group our city has welcomed.”

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in his speech:

“I want to be clear here; Portland has a very storied history of discriminatory practices that eliminated housing opportunity for many of our brothers and sisters of color; we know how de-facto and de jure segregation and restrictive covenant practices eliminated the choices of many Portland families. We know that some of the very neighborhoods we live in are the result of those same housing practices that lasted generations. We know that the involuntary displacement and the discrimination of entire communities resulted in a legacy of lost opportunity, of lost wealth creation, and created an environment for a lack of trust.”

Other cities, like Louisville, Kentucky, which is a member of the NLC REAL learning community, have taken this acknowledgement of structural racism several steps further by building structures to help ensure racial equity and making changes to neighborhoods that have seen historical disinvestment related to their demographics.

In particular, Mayor Greg Fischer noted in his state of the city speech that, “the $220 million Russell neighborhood revitalization project is underway. This historic neighborhood once had a thriving commercial, residential and entertainment district, but was hit hard decades ago by discriminatory government and business practices like urban renewal and redlining.”

In Minneapolis, where former Mayor Betsy Hodges prioritized racial equity, her successor Mayor Jacob Frey used his first state of the city speech to acknowledge that the city has “lost 10,000 units of affordable housing in the last ten years, and our city stands on a history of intentional segregation.”

Acknowledging the way that redlining maps laid the groundwork for disparities in Minneapolis today, he also said:

“We have maps in City Hall identifying North Minneapolis as a ‘slum’ occupied by our black and Jewish communities. It’s that kind of intentional segregation that divides communities and ideas. It is that kind of intentional segregation that restrains our economic growth, prevents inclusion, and hinders the exchange of ideas necessary for our modern day success stories. We didn’t get here by accident. So we can’t expect to address these problems without solutions that match the precision of the harm inflicted.”


Beyond talk, a number of mayors also used their state of the city speeches to highlight the actions they are taking to fight housing inequality in their cities.

In his state of the city speech, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown acknowledged the work he led  in collaboration with Erie County which he described as, ”a joint strategy for alleviating barriers to fair housing choice and enhancing affordable housing opportunities.”

Mayor from cities like Somerville, Massachusetts, & Portland, Oregon, used their speeches to lay out their efforts to fight displacement through measures like establishing emergency rent stabilization programs and repurposing existing buildings for affordable housing. And Mayor Steve Adler of Austin, Texas, chose to highlight the new Anti-Displacement Task Force the city council developed.

Meanwhile, Mayor Steve Noble of Kingston, New York, acknowledged that equitable development should take into account how housing interacts with factors like transportation, walkability and employment. His city recently created the Fair Housing Plan to address this issue.

“If we’re going to address these issues, we need to be bold,” he said. “We need to have the conversations that matter. In 2018, we’re going to talk about what affordable housing means to our community. Because regardless of what your income level is, we all need access to good, quality housing that we can afford… Housing isn’t really about four walls and a roof; it’s about people.”

Among the tools cities have available to help them examine their own history of racial segregation in housing policy include the HUD-outlined Fair Housing Assessment, which has proved helpful. Conducting a Fair Housing Assessment, which used to be a requirement for receiving federal housing funds, provides a framework for the difficult work of examining data and actively involving community voices in developing new solutions that take previous discriminatory practices into account. In order to address the factors that limit equitable access to housing across their cities, New Orleans was the first city to complete its Assessment of Fair Housing in 2016.

The NLC REAL Learning Community also supports cities taking steps to advance racial equity in ways that  complement the HUD assessment. Philadelphia, a participant in the NLC REAL Learning Community, used the results of its Fair Housing Assessment in 2016 as guidance to gain experience working with community partners to examine data and build greater racial equity.

The comprehensive community-participatory fair housing studies are key tools for enhancing community participation and have helped cities make commitments to new anti-displacement measures, push for landlord recruitment for housing voucher families and prioritize community development investments.


Aliza_Wasserman_ready_1 About the Author: Aliza Wasserman is the senior associate for Race, Equity and Leadership (REAL) at National League of Cities.