Regional approach needed to support fair housing in Twin Cities metro — but will grassroots voices be heard in planning and decisions?


Fair housing is more than just making sure landlords and lenders don’t discriminate, but includes undoing patterns of segregation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approach has historically been based on fair housing legislation passed in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968. More recently, according to Chip Halbach, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership (MHP), the agency has also begun moving forward with the idea of advancing sustainability and equity, so that it’s not just guarding against discrimination, but also creating inclusive communities and achieving racial balance.

MHP hosted a forum June 12 to discuss a new regional and coordinated approach to create fair and equitable housing in Minnesota, led by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While taking a regional approach isn’t completely new, Chip Halbach, Executive Director of MHP, says that the Corridors of Opportunity, a new HUD-funded project coordinated by the Met Council, takes regionalism to a whole new level. 

Speakers included Congressmember Keith Ellison; Janet Hostetler, HUD’s Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity; Gary Cunningham, the Community Development Committee Chair of the Met Council; Myron Orfield, executive director of the Institute on Race & Poverty at the University of Minnesota; Ann Steingraeber, an attorney with the Housing Preservation Project; James Wilkinson, project director of Housing Discrimination Law Project with the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis; and Halbach.

A failing system


Materials from the June 12th Policy Forum:

Fair Housing In The 21st Century: Presentation by Janet Hostetler, Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing & Equal Opportunity, HUD

Steps Towards Fair Housing and Equity for the Twin Cities Metropolitan Region: James Wilkinson, Project Director for Housing Discrimination Law Project, Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis

Fair Housing and Equitable Development Resource List: James Wilkinson, Project Director for Housing Discrimination Law Project, Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis

Much of the forum dealt with how to root out the system that perpetuates interconnected issues of poverty, segregation, the achievement gap, housing inequality and a host of other problems that feed off each other.

“The system is failing,” said Gary Cunningham, who described housing patterns that have not changed in Minneapolis since 1946, when a study was conducted that looks very similar to today.

“Part of the problem is how systems are designed,” he said. Affordable housing is great, for example, unless you happen to be a convicted felon. After you serve your time, you can’t live in HUD housing. “Can’t live over here, can’t live over there, can’t get a job,” he said.  They aren’t in “the circle,” he said, and become a part of a caste. “People are racialized,” he said. 

Getting away from “silo thinking”

Rather than focusing on specific problems one at a time, in “silos”, forum speakers urged taking a multifaceted approach. “The real challenges lie in Minnesota’s high unemployment disparities, and education disparities, and health care disparities, said Congressmember Keith Ellison, and  “Housing is essential to how we address these problems.”

Housing plays a key role in creating diverse and equitable communities, according to Ellison. “People need space, and a place, in order to thrive,” he said. Unfortunately, there has been mass disinvestment in public housing, leading many to believe that problems are the fault of the public housing itself, rather than its poor upkeep. 

Myron Orfield believes that integration is the key to allowing people choices. For Orfield, multiple challenges such as fair housing, affordable housing, civil rights, environment, and community development should be determined together. Civil Rights people need to learn about community development, transportation planners need to learn that there’s more to transportation than building straight and wide, he said.

Deconcentrating poverty

One solution lies in deconcentrating poverty, according to Ellison. That can happen in two ways — either facilitating poor people moving out of poor neighborhoods, or making people in highly concentrated areas less poor.

Jay Wilkinson, a Legal Aid lawyer, said that even “low opportunity” neighborhoods have potential to be vibrant. “Every neighborhood here in Frogtown has high opportunity in some aspects,” he said. On the other hand, he said, in Burnsville, if you lose your job, there is no affordable housing.

“Equity is not just about equality,” Wilkinson said. “If we’re running a race together, equality would be everyone gets pair of size 7 shoes.  Equity is that everyone in the race has pair of shoe that fits.”

Affirmatively furthering fair housing 

Janet Hostetler said that Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) began with the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Martin Luther King’s legacy.  The Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings and in other related transactions, she said. 

The Fair Housing Act goes further in that recipients of HUD funding have a responsibility to “affirmatively further fair housing,” Hostetler said, and “promote truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” The seven protected classes of the act are race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. 

According to Hostetler, HUD’s enforcement of AFFH has been “somewhat inconsistent since 1968,” but the agency is “working collaboratively with communities to help them understand AFFH and make good planning decisions.” 

The results of the 2010 census bring some good news and some bad news, Hostetler said. The good news is that 100 percent segregated neighborhoods are increasingly rare, and middle class families have far more choices now than they have in the past. The bad news is that non-poor African Americans are more likely to live in high poverty census tracts than poor white people. 

A regional approach

Historically, government has spent money within jurisdictional borders, Hostetler said. On the other hand, segregation happens across jurisdictional borders, rather than within.  The fact that decisions generally happen at jurisdictional level becomes a barrier.

A recent $5 million grant awarded to the Met Council from HUD funds the Corridors of Opportunity Initiative, and involves different agencies and partners working together to integrate issues of transportation, housing, and energy. The initiative allows the partners to look at issues regionally, “giving communities many more tools and leverage,” Hostetler said.

Part of the initiative includes sustainability planning, based on assessments and outreach to different organizations. Halbach said that MHP and other organizations have an opportunity to have input into how affordable housing should be seen as a regional priority, and how people living in low-income communities should benefit from overall regional initiatives.  

“We have a challenge before us,” said Jay Wilkinson. As the assessment and planning continues, he said, “the Met Council, which is the contractor for the Corridors of Opportunity, have to move to the next stage beyond assessment, and create an action plan to address the impediments that are discovered. Once the assessment is completed, if it “gets put on a shelf somewhere, it will be a tragedy,” he said.

“The Met Council has an enormous amount of potential power,” said Jack Cann from the Housing Preservation Project. “It’s uniquely positioned to address these grotesque disparities. The Met Council has to step up in a way that it hasn’t for at least 30 years. It has to do it voluntarily. There aren’t good ways to make them do it. The opportunity is there. The tools are there — tools that have not been used to the fullest in the past. The problems are growing worse. The council has to step up and do the right thing.”

Bringing voices from communities of color to the table

A number of criticisms arose at the forum about how many decisions are made without including voices from communities of color. Gary Cunningham pointed out how few people of color were even in the room at the forum. “It’s a question of legitimacy,” he said. “If they are not in our organizations, not a part of what we do- our credibility is suspect,” he said. “You have to determine whether you have people of color at the table.”

La Shella Sims, an organizer with Micah, asked how organizers and those with “their boots on the ground” can keep up with the plans that are already in the making, or already have been made. “How do we stay ahead of the game?” she asked. “How do we know what’s going on behind the scenes?” 

Metric Giles, an organizer for the Community Stabilization Project, pointed to a lack of organizers attending the forum. “You are not going to have the change without the organizers,” he said. “It has something to do with the funding process, the whole framing of how we do things. The organizers cannot be at the table if they are not funded.”

Gile also said that organizers need to change how they organize, and begin to think regionally, not in silos. 

Part of the funding of Corridors of Opportunity Initiative does include community engagement, including building capacity of community organizations, according to the website. Also, Halbach said, “One forum is not the entire effort… The Twin Cities approach is pretty good at addressing those concerns.  We’ll have to see how it looks when it’s done.”