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 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.
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.”