COMMUNITY VOICES | Report on subsidized housing, segregation got it wrong

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Last week the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity (IMO) of the University of Minnesota’s Law School issued a report on subsidized housing in the Twin Cities region. Reforming Subsidized Housing Policy in the Twin Cities to Cut Costs and Reduce Segregation suggests, among other things, that too much affordable housing is being built in the central cities of the region compared to the suburbs. It further argues that the system of affordable housing production and the actions of nonprofit housing developers explain the imbalance and make the development of affordable housing in the central city more costly than comparable housing in the suburbs. Finally, the report suggests that affordable housing production in the central city does not generate neighborhood benefits. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusions regarding each of these are highly suspect due to the lack of adequate data and flawed analysis. In addition to the inadequate analysis, the report is riddled with unsupported statements, misleading and suggestive rhetoric, and loaded language that renders the report unworthy of the label “university research.”

In the category of inadequate analysis the report suggests that there is an improper imbalance in affordable housing development in the region; that too much is being built in the cities compared to the suburbs. The “analysis” that leads to this conclusion is simply the fact that the central cities contain 25% of the region’s population but 59% of the subsidized housing. The implication is that the amount of subsidized housing should be proportional to population. Yet, no one in the housing field, especially those involved in devising plans to disperse subsidized housing, argues for such a simplistic rule for distributing assisted units, and this has been the case for at least 40 years. Such a rule ignores other important considerations such as the demand for affordable housing, the location of substandard housing, and any number of additional factors that should also be used to guide the location of affordable housing. One hoping for a sophisticated and useful analysis of what the desired distribution of affordable units should be in a region will find no such thing in this report.

Then there is the section that purports to show that one particular affordable housing development in south Minneapolis has failed to produce neighborhood benefits. Unfortunately, the analysis looks at the wrong time frame and is conducted at the wrong scale. IMO reports neighborhood changes “over the past 10 years,” a period of time in which much of the project was not even complete. Furthermore, instead of examining changes at the site or on the blocks in which the affordable housing was built (which would have been easy enough to do), IMO looked for changes at a much larger (census tract) scale. This analysis would not have survived even the most cursory peer review to which academic research is typically subject.

In the category of unsubstantiated assertions, the list is long, but a single example will suffice. The report fails to substantiate its claim that building affordable housing in the suburbs would reduce concentrations of poverty or racial segregation. In fact, there is every reason to suspect that new, assisted housing in the suburbs will have little to no impact on the poverty or race composition of central city neighborhoods. The Met Council estimated 15 years ago that 50,000 suburban households earning low-incomes spent more than 30% of their incomes on housing. Subsidized housing providers in the suburbs have waiting lists far in excess of the regional ability to fund housing production. Even dramatic increases in assisted-housing development in the suburbs on the scale advocated by IMO would likely have no impact on the poverty or racial characteristics of city neighborhoods.

The worst parts of the report deviate sharply from the accepted standards of academic research, characterized as they are by innuendo, leading statements, and suggestive language that in virtually all cases lack any analytical content. The attack on nonprofit housing developers employs images of “inefficient” “interest groups” “mining” a “byzantine” world with a “dizzying collection” of programs not well connected to policy objectives. The rhetoric in this section, combined with a series of unsubstantiated assertions cobbled together one after the other seems calculated to cast a shadow on the work of nonprofits that develop affordable housing. The attack in fact, implies a self-serving exploitation of housing needs and government funding on the part of these groups. All the while, IMO fails to provide any analysis that would actually make a connection between the activities of the nonprofits and the alleged negative outcomes. Such rhetorical techniques have no place in academic research. In pursuing this line of argumentation the IMO report degenerates into something much less than a research-based report.

When a Center at the University of Minnesota issues and publicizes a report such as IMO has done here, there is an expectation that it meet a high standard for data analysis and argumentation. Regrettably, this report falls far short of that standard.

Read Myron Orfield’s response: COMMUNITY VOICES | What Professor Goetz got wrong about our report on subsidized housing and segregation

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