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Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality

Almost 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, what would it take to meaningfully reduce residential segregation and/or mitigate its negative consequences in the United States?

Over the next several months, the Joint Center for Housing Studies will publish working papers on various aspects of this question written by a diverse set of scholars, policymakers, and practitioners. The papers will be available on our website and will also be collected into an edited volume to be published next year. The papers were presented at a two-day symposium, A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality, that was convened by the Joint Center earlier this year.

At the symposium’s seven thematically-focused panels, the authors took stock of the changing patterns of residential segregation by race/ethnicity and income, and examined concrete steps that could achieve meaningful improvements within the next 10-to-15 years. On a monthly basis from this fall until next summer, we will publish those papers on a panel-by-panel basis, along with a series of blogs, many of them by others who attended the symposium, that further engage with the event’s central question.

This process begins today with the publication of our framing paper for the symposium, which summarizes existing evidence on three topics: the current patterns of residential segregation by race/ethnicity and income, the causes of residential segregation in the United States, and the consequences for individuals and society. The paper also examines the rationale for government action in these areas as well as the key levers that policymakers could use to change the current situation. Because each of these topics is the subject of a larger and longstanding research literature, our summary is not exhaustive. Rather, we seek to provide a concise overview of existing research, so that the papers which follow can focus on potential solutions.

Our discussion of these topics is a reminder of both what has been accomplished since the passage of the Fair Housing Act (technically Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) half a century ago and also how far the US remains from the aspirations put forth when it became law. In particular, we note that while the extent and nature of discrimination have changed int he last five decades, the legacies of historical segregation and exclusion by government, private institutions, and individuals have continued to produce stark and stubborn patterns of racial segregation in US metropolitan areas.

At the same time, we note that changes in demography, income distribution, and the geography of American communities are changing the patterns of residential segregation by income and race/ethnicity. The bursting of the housing bubble and the Great Recession exacerbated distress among poor communities—particularly poor communities of color. In many metropolitan regions, job growth in central cities, improved neighborhood amenities, and increased demand for urban living have also fostered rapid increases in housing costs in longstanding low-income and minority communities located in or near those regions’ urban cores. While gentrification has been one of the most visible signs of these changes, the suburbanization of lower-income households and the growing self-segregation of high-income households into wealthy enclaves are equally consequential.

The framing paper also documents the severe costs of this separation for all members of society, as well as the disproportionate burdens imposed on residents of neighborhoods with concentrated disadvantage. Residents of such neighborhoods—who are most often members of minority racial and ethnic groups—face elevated risks to their health, safety, and economic mobility. Moreover, at a national scale, there is compelling evidence that these individual costs constrain the economy from reaching its full potential while also increasing levels of prejudice and mistrust within the populace and impairing the functioning of our democracy. These costs, along with the potential benefits of greater integration, highlight the need for continued attention and innovation to these challenges.

The symposium papers, which will be released over the next few months, will present multiple perspectives about how we might address these challenges. Our hope is that they will raise questions, spur discussions, and ultimately contribute to forward progress.