Breaking cycles of poverty: How not to cluster the poor in broken neighborhoods

By David Pendered

Metro Atlanta could be the poster child for housing policies that, intentionally or not, have concentrated lower income households in non-white neighborhoods that aren’t pleasant places. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Obama administration intend to change the way policies are implemented, and the policies themselves.

Imperial Hotel

The Imperial Hotel, in downtown Atlanta, was renovated in 1995 with funding from the Low Income Tax Credit Program. All 120 rooms were set aside for low income residents. Credit: wikimedia.org

In the world of housing advocates and developers, the actions coming out of Washington this past summer are most compelling. They could change the way business has been conducted for decades, according to panelists at a quarterly forum sponsored Wednesday by Atlanta Housing Forum.

“The Supreme Court decision is really scary when you look at it, because it’s not built on what we intended to do. It’s built on things that maybe we don’t control,” said Laurel Hart, who directs the Housing Finance and Development Division of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

  • The citation is, “Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al. v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., et al.”

Hart referred to the outcome of long-standing Georgia DCA policies regarding low-income housing tax credits. The outcomes in Georgia are similar to those at the heart of a test case heard by the Supreme Court involving the Texas Department of Community Affairs.

Georgia’s policies for allocating the tax credits have resulted in affordable housing in metro Atlanta being concentrated mainly in south Atlanta, south DeKalb and south Clayton counties, and the town centers of counties such as Hall and Cherokee counties, according to maps provided by Mike Carnathan, a researcher with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Georgia's formula for allocation low income tax credits has resulted in affordable housing being concentrated in poor communities. Credit: ARC

Georgia’s formula for allocation low income tax credits has resulted in affordable housing being concentrated in poor communities. Credit: ARC

The reason is the matrix of rules that determine where Georgia seeks to encourage the development of affordable housing, according to Hart. Evidently, the matrix has had an unintended impact and the matrix needs to be changed, she said.

“If the end results of our selection process means we are primarily building in high minority concentration areas with high poverty, high crime, then we need to make changes,” Hart said.

The policies should be based on a number of decisions influenced by the court ruling, she said.

“It doesn’t prohibit us from building in a blighted area,” Hart said. “But when we do, I think it has to be much more thoughtful. I don’t think we can just build a tax credit project in a minority-concentrated area with high crime, bad schools, and we’re going to say that just because we build here we’re making that community better. … Are we just building a property, or are we community building? Are we making a community better place for people to live?”

Hart was one of three speakers on the panel. The others offered their perspective of the federal actions.

Tera Doak is an attorney and self-avowed “geek” on housing law. Doak serves as associate general counsel for Habitat for Humanity International.

Housing Forum, low income in minority neighborhoods

Georgia’s formula for allocating low income tax credits has resulted in affordable housing being concentrated in non-white communities. Credit: ARC

In her closing comments in the first segment of the program Doak noted: “One of the points I’m trying to make is there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there in respect to these claims, and it will be really interesting to see how all this plays out.”

Doak noted that the Supreme Court ruling did reaffirm a long-standing ruling about what it takes to make a case of disparate impact in fair housing lawsuits. And HUD did issue a final ruling that will affect programs including the Community Development Block Grant.

Still, from a lawyer’s perspective, a lot of litigation remains before the final policies are determined.

“It remains to be seen how courts will apply, ‘disparate impact,’” Doak said. “Additional cases will be brought that will flesh that out.”

The headliner of the presentation was Ethan Handelman, vice president for policy and advocacy for the National Housing Conference.

Incidentally, NHC presented its 2015 Housing Visionary Award in June to Piece by Piece, a regional initiative to address the foreclosure crisis. Piece by Piece is staffed by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc., which helps staff Atlanta Regional Housing.

Handelman was enthused by the rulings from the Supreme Court and HUD. He focused on the notion that the court had reaffirmed long-standing interpretations of fair housing.

Housing Forum, housing plus transportation costs

Metro Atlanta ranks sixth highest in the nation in terms of the combined cost of housing and transporation. Credit: ARC

“In some ways, what the Supreme Court says is, ‘status quo continues,’” Handelman said. “By reaffirming that standard, it added a lot of energy to this conversation and reminds people of what the Fair Housing Act of 1968 means, and how we can change communities for the better.”

Handelman discussed the sometimes competing visions of fair housing. Some advocates call for community development. Others frame the fair housing issues of access and choice as relevant in civil rights.

“Too often, we’re fighting each other,” he said.

Handelman’s comments reminded of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that wiped away crucial parts of the Votings Rights Act of 1965. The court determined that states with histories of racial discrimination no longer need approval from the federal government to change voting laws.

Obama called last month for Congress to renew the provision. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled against providing Shelby County, Ala., with more than $2 million to cover its legal costs for bringing the case to the Supreme Court, according to a report in huffingtonpost.com.

In the interest of full disclosure: David Pendered is a member of ANDP’s Advisory Council.

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow. David was born in Pennsylvania, grew up in North Carolina and is married to a fifth-generation Atlantan.

12 replies
  1. RobzWelsh says:

    Why are no qoutes from elected officials included? They like to talk about fixing crime and bad schools all the time but never mention the government programs that are poorly designed and keep black ghettos in existence. The map created by ARC is pot on but does not include crime and the myriad of bad socioeconomic data that go hand in hand with racist housing policy that undergrid modern segragation in Atlanta. I thought the article was average in that it sounds like its placate to the status quo instead of calling it like it is. The reality is the HUD and local governments have utterly failed to move struggling families out of poverty through outcome based social safety net programs, and instead have relied on gentrification as the go to model for community transformation. This is wrong, instead we need to focused on incumbent upgrading and economic diversification in struggling communities. The Purpose Built Communitites model is by far one of the best models out there but it relies of the generosity of billionaires, why should citizens depend on unelected people to do the job of the people we elect? The reason is because folks in power like Kasim Reed and the entire Atlanta council do not really care about changing communities– this much should be obvious from the nearly 10 years and 10,000 vacant properties that have devastated NPU-V and neighborhoods South of I-20. As Walter Mondale said this week at the Fair Housing Conference in DC, their is a benevolent facade perpertrated by those in power but when it comes to where people live, all the policies point to keeping poor blacks away from more affulent whites and even middle class blacks. That’s the Atlanta way!
    ThanksReport

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  2. GeoffKoski says:

    atlurbanist Story doesn’t really get to the heart of the issues. LIHTC gives credit for placement in “needy” areas, maybe that’s backwards.Report

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  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    atlurbanist GeoffKoski  Please move in an apartment development with Section 8 units. After a year, report back how you like it.
    I have a friend who did just that and finally moved after 5 years’ experience. Said she, “I thought I was being noble but finally admitted I was punishing myself. I had thought a few Section 8 units would be no problem, but I was wrong. I no longer will pay good money to live in a ‘hood.”Report

    Reply
  4. Ethan Handelman says:

    As one of the speakers at the event, I really appreciate this helpful coverage.  Atlanta is having the conversation and Georgia is starting hte action that many places need to take to make more inclusive, less segregated, and more affordable communities.  Read more about my thoughts on the forum on our blog: http://www.nhcopenhouse.org/2015/09/why-i-love-atlanta-regional-housing.htmlReport

    Reply
  5. attendee says:

    It is sad that the official from the Georgia Department of Community Affairs responded at the event that the HUD should not take enforcement actions  (withholding federal housing funds) against racially exclusionary suburbs and localities that avoid taking any steps to affirmatively further fair housing. Why should localities be subsidized for supporting highly segregating housing patterns?  If they turn down the federal assistance, that is probably a good thing (and could conceivably be plowed back into places doing what they are supposed to be doing under the *statute*). A state official basically endorsed localities who flaunt federal statute and *explicitly* act in racially exclusionary ways. Nice! 🙁Report

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