Fighting segregation in housing: There’s a map for that

‘Opportunity metrics’ make vivid the racial and economic patterns behind fair-housing disputes across the country

Joseph Brown moved from West Baltimore to Columbia, Md., after a lawsuit found Maryland in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
Lawrence Lanahan

COLUMBIA, Md. — Twelve-year-old Joseph Brown sits on the edge of his bed, gripping an Xbox controller. It’s Madden NFL with a Super Bowl matchup: the Seattle Seahawks against the Denver Broncos. The digital field, like the frigid parking lot outside Joe’s window, is covered in snow.

“Joe!” his mother yells from the living room. “You need to go and make your breakfast!”

It’s 8 a.m., but with Joe’s school opening two hours late, Nicole Smith is still in early-morning mode: T-shirt and pajama bottoms, hair up in bobby pins.

A single mom, Nicole just completed a degree in early childhood development at the local community college. She has been patching together part-time work around her studies and Joe’s schedule. Until 2009, Nicole and Joe lived in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore. Now they’re in Columbia, Md., half an hour away by car, but a world away in terms of opportunity.

At Joe’s former elementary school in Baltimore, 97 percent of the students are low income, and 97 percent are African-American. His middle school in Columbia is one-third low income, with white, Asian, Hispanic and multiracial students making up just over half the population. In their old Baltimore neighborhood, Nicole says, she saw a man get shot in the leg in front of a corner bar as she held baby Joe in her arms.

“Somebody’s always getting shot around there,” Joe adds.

Finally dressed for school, he puts on a bulky coat, grabs his school bag and strides through a placid apartment complex past license plates from many different states.

“People are coming from California, Ohio, Florida,” says Nicole. “It’s because of the job opportunities.”

If one were to color-code a map of the Baltimore region in terms of the opportunity available — jobs, safe neighborhoods, good schools — Nicole’s little corner of Columbia would look a lot different from her former home in West Baltimore.  

The above map was used in a 2005 court case to illustrate racial and educational inequality in housing in the Baltimore area. Now the Housing of Department and Urban Development is building a similar nationwide mapping tool.

In fact, it was just such a map that helped her and her son leave the city for the suburbs. Now the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is fine-tuning a new interactive data map of race, class and opportunity that it hopes will help integrate housing nationwide.

In 1995, Baltimore began demolishing its high-rise projects in favor of much smaller developments scattered across the city. This was part of a nationwide trend, as HUD looked for an alternative to the concentrated poverty of the high-rises. But in Baltimore, many former high-rise residents were relocated to areas that were equally poor and segregated. Some of them filed a lawsuit arguing that the decades of decision making that led to the racial isolation in the city’s public housing constituted a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The act prohibits racial discrimination in the housing market and requires that any jurisdiction receiving HUD funding take steps to ensure that people of all backgrounds have the same housing choices. The judge in the case ruled that, yes, the Fair Housing Act had been violated. Nicole and Joe are one of hundreds of black families who benefited from the decision.

As part of his expert testimony in the case, Thompson v. HUD, University of California, Berkeley, law professor john a. powell (he writes his name in all lowercase) submitted a map of “communities of opportunity” in Baltimore and the surrounding counties. He defined opportunity using 14 criteria, including good public schools, access to transportation and low crime. Low-opportunity areas were depicted on the map in yellow, average in orange and high in red. The pattern was unmistakable: Baltimore was nearly all yellow, surrounded by a sea of orange and red.

Nicole Smith lived in public housing as a child, making her eligible for relocation to a "community of opportunity" in Columbia, Md.
Lawrence Lanahan

The implication? If the city’s public-housing residents were going to be moved to opportunity, they would have to be moved to the suburban counties. In 2005, a federal judge agreed.

“The maps were really an integral part of making the case,” says Barbara Samuels of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, one of the attorneys who represented the plaintiffs. “A map is a picture, and a picture tells a thousand words.”

The Thompson case led to the creation of the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program, which helps public-housing residents move to “communities of opportunity” throughout the region, like those identified on powell’s map. The target neighborhoods have poverty rates under 10 percent; fewer than 30 percent of the residents are people of color; and less than 5 percent of the population lives in federally subsidized housing. The decision requires that HUD offer the program to about 4,500 Baltimore families by 2018.

Nicole Smith had lived in public housing briefly as a little girl until burglars made off with the television one night. Her mother then moved the family into Nicole’s grandmother’s house. Nicole eventually made it to college, but dropped out when she got pregnant with Joe. By 2007, she and Joe were crowded into her mother’s West Baltimore house with other family members, itching to find a place of their own. But with a job at a local supermarket, Nicole couldn’t afford a market-rate apartment.

After applying for public housing and the housing voucher program formerly known as Section 8, she heard about the Baltimore Housing Mobility Program from a friend. Because of her brief stint in public housing as a child, she was eligible. She was accepted and moved to Columbia with Joe in 2009. “When I got here, I loved it,” Nicole says.

Since the Thompson v. HUD ruling, the field of “opportunity metrics” has expanded. The amount of data about communities that’s available has expanded, too, as has the sophistication of mapping tools. HUD is now building its own interactive map as part of a pending regulation with the potential to alter the landscape of race, class and opportunity across the country.

Ammunition for advocates?

The community where Nicole Smith and Joseph Brown live.
Lawrence Lanahan

HUD’s map is just a prototype at this point, but it makes vivid the racial patterns behind fair-housing disputes across the country. In Dallas, for instance, HUD has threatened to withhold federal funding, alleging that the city discouraged the development of low-income housing in the whiter, wealthier parts of town while encouraging it in poor, minority-heavy neighborhoods. HUD’s “noncompliance” letter to Dallas is 29 dense pages of footnotes, statutes, acronyms and tables. In contrast, the stark visuals of the agency’s map show the residents and developments in question as clusters of little colored dots and houses.

And just as a data map was key in the Thompson v. HUD ruling, which reshaped public housing in the Baltimore region, HUD’s data tool could shed light on another long-standing fair-housing dispute in the same region.

In 2011, fair-housing advocates filed a complaint with HUD over a Maryland state policy that allows local governments to reject the construction of low-income-housing developments. HUD has yet to respond to the complaint, but the map could give ammunition to advocates who say Maryland’s policy is in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

On HUD’s map, blue dots represent white people. Two big swaths on either side of downtown are almost completely devoid of blue dots: East and West Baltimore, both poor and majority black. These areas, however, have thick clusters of little yellow houses, representing developments that received a federal tax credit for renting 20 to 40 percent of units to households making significantly less than the median income for the area. Such developments are the biggest source of new affordable housing in America.

It is a tool, but it won’t change anything in and of itself.

Barbara Samuels

Lawyer, American Civil Liberties Union

This apparent concentration of low-income developments in poor and black neighborhoods illustrates the pattern that led to the 2011 complaint. To fair-housing advocates, the state policy allowing local governments to vote down tax-credit-backed low-income developments is a license to keep affordable housing out of “high-opportunity communities.”  

The complaint draws on a Fair Housing Act provision that requires communities receiving HUD funding to take active steps to “overcome the legacy of segregation.” Jurisdictions can lose HUD funding if they don’t file regular reports identifying segregated housing patterns — and what they plan to do about them. A 2011 report from the Baltimore region calls the state’s local-approval policy an “impediment” to fair housing. Later, the Baltimore County executive signed off on the report, yet the Baltimore County Council voted last November to reject a tax-credit-backed low-income development, in part because of complaints from neighborhood associations.

Many of the reports that local governments have filed are outdated and lack detail, as the Government Accountability Office and a series by investigative-news outlet ProPublica have recently brought to light. Yet there have been few repercussions; HUD has rarely enforced the part of the act requiring “affirmative” steps to undo segregation. But last July, the department proposed a new rule to help local governments file more meaningful housing-segregation reports. The data map is part of that rule.

“The thrust of the rule is to put as much information in the hands of local communities (as possible),” says Bryan Greene, HUD’s acting assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity.

HUD is giving communities the map to help them find barriers to fair housing and, therefore, remedies. The map shows “racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty”—and their proximity to affordable housing, health hazards, jobs and, of course, public and low-income housing. In other words, like the Thompson v. HUD map, it’s a portrait of the intersection between race, class and opportunity. (And, in fact, HUD consulted with powell while developing the tool.)

The ACLU’s Samuels says the HUD map’s unveiling of racial and income pattens in housing will not necessarily translate into the kind of changes that came out of the Thompson case. “It is a tool, but it won’t change anything in and of itself,” she explains.

Just as the Thompson map was powerless until the judge’s ruling, the HUD map must be augmented by real pressure on communities to revisit the policies that could be driving the patterns. HUD officials are optimistic that the map can help create that pressure.

It is “for the communities to use, but it also provides some public transparency around how communities are making decisions,” says Greene, while acknowledging that the map was not designed to help HUD enforce anything in particular. “The purpose here is to start the conversation,” he explains. “And it is going to be a conversation between HUD and local planners.”

Raphael Bostic, a former HUD assistant secretary for policy development and research who helped launch the mapping tool, says that will be a step in the right direction. “Many communities aren’t really doing any of this conversation at all,” he points out. “Any conversation is better than none.”

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