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Housing Perspectives

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

Connecting Americans to Prosperity: How Infrastructure—Including Its Links to Housing—Can Become More Equitable

The greatness of our nation’s physical infrastructure (buildings, transportation systems, communication networks, water systems, etc.) is matched by its massive economic contributions. Infrastructure literally supports communities, creates jobs, builds businesses, and fosters trade while being a vehicle from which other economic activity flourishes in addition to providing basic human services. Yet, infrastructure’s achievements mask past disparities. Simply put, not everyone has benefited from infrastructure’s economic promise and, as I testified in a congressional hearing earlier this year, there are five significant aspects of infrastructure that should be addressed in future projects to make it more equitable.

First, the evidence of economic disparities from past infrastructure is overwhelming. Projects have frequently been designed without the fair participation of all stakeholders and have resulted in economic disparities in the places in which they are built. Indeed, stories of displaced families, blighted local businesses, pollutant-exposed households, and exclusion from transport, clean water, and other services have been a shameful part of infrastructure’s history. Research is needed to synthesize the qualities of disparity from individual projects and quantify their cumulative economic effects. This evidence can be used to define fairer distributions in future investments.

Second, there are many infrastructure systems, and each has its own historical cases of unfair practices. The American Society of Civil Engineers sorts our infrastructure into 18 categories. There are more, though, such as the managed ecosystems that serve as hazard barriers and that support local and Indigenous economies; the climate adaptation and cybersecurity infrastructure that is yet to be invented; and the largest segment of our built environment, housing. Housing is too often a neglected component of our physical infrastructure, but plays a key role in defining the access, affordability, and quality of communities. In planning future projects, the full range of physical infrastructure needs to be considered, as each sector produces distinct economic outcomes and manifests inequities differently.

Third, there are many ways in which infrastructure disparities take form. For example, understanding the geography of past unfair infrastructure allows us to prioritize those harmed communities for new resources. Requiring authentic community engagement ensures that possibly unfair effects are mitigated, and it encourages buy-in. Monitoring hiring and contracting, including job transitions, fairly distributes immediate economic benefits, while assessing long-term impacts on health and possessions can avoid economic burdens to low-income households and the legal costs to stakeholders. It’s critical to consider how these dimensions are addressed in federal statute and program rules. Consistent definitions will not only help underserved communities but also reduce inefficient regulatory burdens.

Fourth, there are examples of infrastructure’s attempts at fairness from which to draw lessons.  Common elements include the identification of underserved communities in project scope, extensive community participation, and collaboration between public works and other siloes to yield “co-benefits”—or, added value to community health, cultural cohesion, and direct financial revenue in addition to a project’s physical objective. The projects also show that fair practices and analysis need not be a radical departure from contemporary professional practice. Applying the longstanding fair housing legal precedents can also illuminate where other physical interventions have failed. Research and pilots to produce innovations that marry equity analysis with cutting-edge engineering would yield more examples of fair infrastructure, demonstrating that equitable infrastructure can produce fairer economies and greater gains.

Fifth, low-income communities also need technical resources. Communities, especially rural ones, need knowledge in addition to money, including consistent and high-quality infrastructure technical assistance. Regional infrastructure planning that integrates urban and rural infrastructure would do a better job bringing regional economies together.

Reflecting on recent debates about infrastructure policy, there are claims that the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act inscribes a “social agenda” within the wires, concrete, and pipes of our infrastructure. But infrastructure that is not equitable is, by default, inequitable. Our government at all levels and our private-sector providers must ensure that the rules for building and maintaining our infrastructure are fair for everyone. Federal guidance is needed to set that fair playing field for future growth now, not to keep up a pretense that it was fair in the past.