When Neighbors Resist Affordable Housing, What's a City to Do?

When affordable housing developments get off the ground, communities often have a lot to say about them—especially when information about the proposal is scarce. But with the federal government starting to push states and municipalities to do more with their housing programs, getting neighbors invested in new developments in a positive way is more important than ever. Without their buy-in, projects can stall for months or even years, and local governments sometimes try to avoid clashes with residents by making deals as quietly as possible. Housing leaders need to make neighborhood engagement a priority if efforts to expand opportunity are going to be successful—and equitable—for all community members.

For years, the legacy of residential segregation has kept many households of color locked out of neighborhoods—and wealth-building opportunities—in communities across the country. In recent years, the federal government has started to crack down on housing policies that keep communities segregated—even inadvertently. In a much discussed decision, the Supreme Court ruled in last year that state and local governments do, in fact, violate federal housing laws when they spend money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on policies that perpetuate segregation. The ruling stipulated that this is the case even if the intent of the policy itself was not explicitly to segregate housing by race.

This decision is still reaching municipalities and their efforts to build affordable housing that doesn't perpetuate decades-old divisions along the lines of race. Partially as a result of this decision, HUD is providing local governments with the data necessary to understand and measure segregation, in the hopes that localities will use this data to comply with the Supreme Court's order: creating affordable housing in new places and ending the seemingly endless cycle of segregation in housing in America.

However, regardless of the Supreme Court's decision, HUD's data and the White House's support, state and local officials' ability to comply with this rule can be greatly impacted by individual citizens, like Veronica Walters.

On Dec. 12, the Baltimore Sun published a 6,100 word story…that describes how the city Housing Authority, complying with a federal court order, has been quietly buying homes over the past decade in prosperous suburbs to use as public housing…The reaction to the Sun story was immediate. "City housing program stirs fears in Baltimore County," Donovan wrote in a follow-up piece.

Veronica Walters, 73, who lives in Catonsville, a middle class, largely white Baltimore County neighborhood with a median household income of $77,165, told Donovan. "We have worked for years in order to have a house in the county, and the government is pushing people out here," she said, before adding: "They don't deserve to have what my family worked hard for. It's a shame we didn't know about this ahead of time. I would have been right there protesting."

Wealthy suburban counties such as Veronica's are not the only group to resist affordable housing. Earlier this month, in the Inwood neighborhood in Northern Manhattan, residents protested and successfully stopped rezoning efforts that would've cleared the way for the construction of a new 23-story, mixed-use development that included over 150 affordable units. The predominantly Latino neighborhood felt that the below-market-rate rents weren't below-market enough to be affordable for most New Yorkers. Moreover, residents feared that, if the building succeeded, it would gentrify the neighborhood, raise rents and lead landlords to force current residents out of their homes.

The dueling examples of Baltimore and Inwood highlight the difficulty of implementing an affordable housing program. Each example offers its own lessons, but both illustrate existing residents' resistance to change, and how this hampers the ability of governments to use affordable housing to lift people out of poverty.

The reaction to affordable housing certainly isn't new, but hiding its implementation isn't the answer. Baltimore city officials have long faced resistance to affordable housing. In one noteworthy example, 1990s Moving to Opportunity project that would've relocated people living in segregated poverty to middle income neighborhoods was met with such protest (in one case just 10 new homes were slated to be built in a majority white neighborhood) that the project had to be abandoned. Just this month, under pressure from suburban residents who feared lower property values, Baltimore City Council rejected a bill that would have made it illegal for landlords to discriminate against prospective tenants who use Section 8 vouchers to pay their rent, making it even more difficult for families to find affordable units. These are just some of many examples in Baltimore—so it's no surprise why city officials may have wanted to keep the purchasing of homes in suburban counties a secret from residents like Veronica.

However, purchasing homes in secret, and trying to keep entire housing programs operating under the radar only encourages the stubborn, occasionally virulent skepticism with which existing residents treat affordable housing. The Supreme Court decision and the provision of HUD data calls for transparency from advocates and city officials alike while giving them the ability to address segregation and poverty. The hard conversations with residents should be at the forefront of these efforts, rather than at best an afterthought and at worst a non-entity. Residents should have the opportunity to understand what the problem is, why the court decisions matter and how they may work together to improve the lives of everyone in the community. The Prosperity Now data illustrates the depth of the problem, and the potential for affordable housing to be an effective solution. The opportunity to recognize these benefits exists, but the people who can put a stop to affordable housing are also the people who can ensure its success. Advocates and city officials shouldn't fear these people; they should welcome them into the process.

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