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Housing Perspectives

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

Reaffirming Our Commitment to Promoting Racial Justice in Housing

The murder of George Floyd has precipitated an outpouring of public protest across the country at a scale unlike any in recent decades. While the immediate focus of these demonstrations is on the urgent need for fundamental changes to policing, the protests also recognize that racial injustice is evident across virtually all spheres of our society—in health care, employment, education, and, of course, housing. Hopefully the enormous surge in public attention to these broad issues of racial justice will lead to meaningful change. But our history as a country demonstrates that the progress we have made has come all too slowly and fallen disgracefully short of what is needed. The challenge we face today is to ensure that the current widespread acknowledgement of substantial racial injustice represents an inflection point that puts us on a path to meaningful and sustained change for the better.

In fulfilling our mission of raising awareness of housing issues and informing policy, our Center has long had a strong focus on highlighting racial disparities in housing markets and the need for public policy to address these failings. This emphasis has been evident in our recent work documenting the individuals and families most at risk of losing wages and becoming housing insecure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of the happenings of these last weeks, we are reaffirming our commitment to keep the promotion of racial justice central to our work with the goal of helping realize meaningful and lasting improvements in housing opportunities for people of color.

As a starting point, it is worth reiterating some of the most troubling disparities in our housing markets that must be addressed.

Residential Segregation: As so compellingly presented by Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, a long history of housing market discrimination and racist public policies have left a legacy of enormously high residential segregation by race and ethnicity in the US. While the degree of segregation between whites and African Americans has declined since excessively high levels in the 1970s, it is still the case that whites and racial minorities largely live in separate communities. Our recent analysis shows that, as of 2015, the average white person lived in a neighborhood that was three-quarters white while the average African American and Latino lived in areas where two-thirds of residents were people of color. Segregation has a host of deleterious consequences for political representation, access to good quality public services and amenities, and opportunities for social interaction that help alleviate prejudice. In a series of studies, Raj Chetty and his colleagues at Opportunity Insights have documented the importance of where one grows up for opportunities for upward mobility, with segregated communities having particularly poor rates of advancement for people of color.

Homeownership Attainment: In the US, homeownership remains the primary source of wealth accumulation for most households, is associated with lower housing cost burdens late in life, and is an important source of residential stability. As we documented in our most recent State of the Nation’s Housing report, the gaps in homeownership rates between whites and African Americans and Hispanics are enormous, at 30 and 27 percent, respectively. In fact, researchers at the Urban Institute have noted that the gap between whites and African Americans is its highest level in 50 years—meaning that African Americans have actually lost ground in owning homes since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. In part, these disparities reflect unequal outcomes in education and labor markets that have curtailed economic advancement among people of color, but as detailed by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in her recent book Race for Profit, it also reflects a long history of harmful public policies and private market exploitation of African American homeowners that have led to waves of equity stripping and foreclosures to the detriment of individual owners and entire neighborhoods.

Rental Housing Cost Burdens: This century has seen a tremendous rise in the number and share of renters with housing cost burdens—those who spend more than 30 percent of their income for housing with little left for food, health care, transportation, or savings. While the housing affordability crisis has been garnering increasing public attention, often overlooked is that the inability to find affordable housing is more prevalent among African Americans (55 percent) and Latinos (53 percent) compared to whites (43 percent). The failure of policy at the federal, state, and local levels to support more affordable housing thus disproportionately imposes hardship on communities of color.

Housing Insecurity and Homelessness: Reflecting their greater insecurity in the housing market, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to be threatened with eviction and five times more likely than whites to experience homelessness. As Matthew Desmond writes in Evicted, there are enormous consequences for families experiencing such housing insecurity, including added financial stress, job loss, poor mental health, and poor performance at school for children.

Addressing these problems requires documenting the extent and impact of these disparities,  acknowledging their root causes, and taking concerted action across a range of policy realms. But we don’t have to start from scratch in tackling this challenge; one good place to start is The Dream Revisited, a five-year project by the NYU Furman Center to explore the question of how we can foster greater racial and economic integration from a wide range of perspectives. We also contributed to this debate in the symposium we hosted and book we published last year, A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality, which examined the question of what it would take to meaningfully reduce residential segregation and/or mitigate its negative consequences in the United States.

In addition to our research, we also recognize that we have an important role to play in expanding opportunities for people of color in our hiring, our contracting, and our public events. The type of fundamental social change so clearly needed will require that we all do what we can in our personal and professional lives to make a difference. The Joint Center for Housing Studies is committed to working harder toward that end.