Lifting a Powerful Policy Lever for Housing Justice

Multi-level concrete building under construction with tower crane
(Photo by iStock/Sundry Photography)

What if government, the philanthropic sector, and community advocates could pull a policy lever and advance housing, climate, and racial justice all at once?

That could happen when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) finalizes the long-awaited Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule (AFFH), which was published in February in the Federal Register for a period of public comment—but only if we seize the moment. 

More than a bureaucratic formality, AFFH has the potential to move housing justice—and by extension racial, climate, and economic justice—further than ever before by requiring local governments who seek federal housing dollars to take meaningful actions to overcome patterns of segregation and to foster inclusive communities. The rule would allow HUD, for the very first time, to enforce fair housing policies that have languished on the books of most county and local housing departments for decades.

Here’s how it will work: Every public agency that receives funding from HUD will soon have to gather extensive data on the housing disparities experienced by historically marginalized racial, ethnic, and social groups in their communities; meet with community members about what the data is and what it means; gather community feedback about ways to reduce the disparities; and develop a thoughtful plan of action. Each plan gets turned into HUD. Once its plan is reviewed and approved, each jurisdiction commits to doing the work outlined in its plan.

That’s the gist. Here’s why it matters.

Millions of Americans will participate in the AFFH effort—some as community leaders, others as ordinary citizens who want to know more about housing disparities right where they live and how those disparities came to be. Every jurisdiction across the country will have to comply with the requirements of AFFH to receive their share of federal housing dollars. That means that every housing department across the country will go through the process of collecting and publishing for public consumption the most extensive data on disparities in housing outcomes that we’ve ever had in this country and engage their community residents about it.

Finding oneself in a blue state, a red state, or something in between will be irrelevant to one’s housing opportunity since every housing department will have to engage residents about the disparities in local housing patterns, and they’ll have to put forward plans for how to close those loops. The public will be able to ask questions that have gone unuttered and unanswered for too long, such as:

  • Why are people of color almost always more likely to be sited near environmental hazards?       
  • Why are appraisals of homes in majority Black and brown communities almost always lower than those in majority white communities?
  • Why is affordable housing so rarely built for people who are differently abled or need additional supports to live independently?    
  • Why are “starter homes” for young families and shared equity housing so rarely built in some communities but more pricey luxury condos seem to be readily available?

And those are just the starter questions!

Planning departments may not have all the answers for how to solve for the inequities suggested by these questions. But the process of engaging communities and seeking feedback about how to prioritize federal dollars in the service of greater housing fairness is exactly what the AFFH promises.

We recognize that the response to the rule will be varied. Some housing departments will lean in hard and do meaningful planning and community engagement. Others will barely move the needle. Yet even minimal effort at compliance will be taking a huge step forward for almost all jurisdictions and would go well beyond what they’ve done in the past. If housing, climate, and racial justice advocates want to see meaningful action on segregation, the AFFH is one of the best opportunities we’ve had in decades to make progress.

But we’re not there quite yet. Public comment ended in April 2023, and HUD will likely release the final rule sometime later this year.  Then those housing departments—many of which are not trained in or used to studying, mitigating, and preventing housing disparities—will need support to be able to respond thoughtfully to its requirements.

So, advocates for fair and just housing, no matter what sectors we are from: we have lots of work to do, and we need to be ready for both the potential of the rule and the heavy lifting needed for it to live up to its promise.

Green Communities: We’ve Been Here Before

Those of us in the philanthropic community who have long worked toward justice have a vested interest in AFFH’s success. But past experience tells us the rule on its own is not enough. Nothing will change if communities don’t know how to implement it or don’t implement it well. HUD will need partners in this work, and we believe successful efforts that made green affordable housing the standard across much of the country provide a model.

There are important similarities between what the AFFH offers as a policy lever and what it took to position green as the standard in affordable housing, both to address the racial disparities in access to healthy housing and to live into the promise of a more just and environmentally appropriate form of housing for the nation’s low- and moderate-income families. In the early 2000s, when this effort began, the idea of greening affordable housing was a tough sell. Although the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) had set a new standard to describe what “green building” was, there wasn’t a collective consciousness about how to scale green building, especially in relation to housing for low- and moderate-income families.

Similar to some of the skepticism we hear about AFFH—“How can we possibly expect a rule like AFFH to really transform how the nation’s frontline housing workforce deals with racial segregation, when we are struggling to get the most basic affordable housing units built in the first place?”—many wrote off the idea of greening affordable housing. A common refrain was “How can we possibly expect developers to build affordable housing to green standards when we can barely get them to build affordable housing to begin with?”

With our colleagues at Enterprise Community Partners, a leading national housing nonprofit we worked for at the time, we knew that the opportunity to position green housing would come from thinking strategically about the policy levers at our disposal. It wasn’t likely that we were going to get all developers across the country (on their own) to build better, the same way that we aren’t likely to get all housing departments on their own to meaningfully address the ill effects of segregation. So, we looked carefully at the housing delivery system for places where we could incentivize building better.  

As in all movements, we thought carefully about organizational partnerships, funding, and even the kind of press coverage that we’d need to push for green. We thought even harder about the policy levers we could use to scale the effort. One of the most important seemed to be advocating for state housing finance agencies to include the Green Communities Criteria, a set of green building standards released by Enterprise Community Partners’ Green Communities Initiative in 2005, as the standard for all affordable housing financed through its federal funding.   

This strategy was not a panacea. In the same way we now expect some (but not all) housing departments to meaningfully make progress on AFFH, to date 27 states either require or incentivize the green criteria to be met. But even though not all states require the criteria, the entire conversation changed in response to our concerted, strategic action. Few developers today question whether they can build to green standards; more than half of the industry already does and more are being led there every day. Few housing departments question whether they can hold developers to a green standard; most housing departments have strengthened their own basic understanding of what it takes to green affordable housing.

No, we’re not completely there yet, but we changed the game. Working through the state agencies gave us a platform to support state agencies’ implementation and developers’ compliance, and that’s exactly the kind of lever AFFH offers in the realm of fair housing now. When the rule is final, we are likely to see that the 1,300 jurisdictions that use HUD’s process for assessing affordable housing and community development needs, called consolidated planning, and another 3,000 or so public housing agencies will need to comply. (These are the jurisdictions that have had to comply with fair housing rules in the past, and presumably the new AFFH rule will apply to the same set of HUD grantees.)

Lessons From Green Communities for the AFFH

We see an incredible opportunity here—one that doesn’t come around every day. When we look at the example of Green Communities, here’s what we hope would happen as housing, racial, and environmental justice advocates get mobilized to support the rollout of AFFH. A version of these strategies and how they evolved is laid out in Dana’s book Gray to Green Communities: A Call to Action on the Housing and Climate Crises, as a reference point for how we might tailor our response on AFFH.

Convene experts on fair housing to make key recommendations on how to make the rule practical for housing departments. In developing the Green Communities Criteria with its partners, Enterprise’s Green Communities Initiative translated and expanded on ideas about green building that had been put forward by the U.S. Green Building Council in the late 1990s. The criteria made building to a green standard practical and feasible for developers and therefore made it more likely that efforts to promote green building would succeed.

A similar step is critical for advancing meaningful action on the AFFH. While HUD has defined the rule and set up compliance mechanisms, it is still relatively difficult for housing departments to understand how to comply. They need resources that make the work practical, especially if they’re in smaller cities with limited staff. The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) provides national expertise on this issue, and we can support them by helping them convene a wider range of stakeholders to this effort.

Get high-bar proof points under our belts. Before state housing finance agencies would adopt the criteria, we had to show that building to a green standard could be done and could be done cost effectively. To do that, we gathered case studies of early efforts at building affordably to green standards.

In the case of AFFH, several jurisdictions across the country have already begun the community engagement process, even before the rule’s official rollout. A diverse few—urban, rural, suburban, and native—could become models, setting a high bar for other departments and demonstrating what’s possible. To spur more action around these examples, philanthropists or the government could commission a competition that incentivizes other housing departments to do a high-quality job at the AFFH process and awards innovation grants to a few departments.

Center equity. Those of us who advocated for Green Communities in the aughts knew that if the buildings were green but the approach wasn’t equitable, we wouldn’t make progress. The same idea should be applied to AFFH.

The community feedback process should center equity, and the recommendations that follow need to have equity at their core. Providing a thoughtful menu of policy, programs, services, and investments local housing planning departments could use as a starting playbook could help, even if they don’t take up all recommendations. We’ll need to include truly diverse options: public-private partnerships, solutions that rely on government agencies and may require broader public support, and strategies that may be lifted up by corporate or nonprofit organizations and do not rely on electoral or public strategies.

Rally philanthropic support to leverage public investment. Green Communities at Enterprise gave us a head start in thinking about how to finance the rollout of green housing across the country. It put in place a five-year, $555 million program of tax credit equity, investments, loans, grants, consulting services, and training with initial philanthropic support coming from a handful of large national funders, including The Home Depot Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Kendeda Fund, Bank of America Foundation, the Citi Foundation, and others.

Similarly, the AFFH effort will need dedicated funding (for all the steps we describe here) to ride alongside the significant public investment of housing departments complying with the rule. In this effort, we suspect that both national and community foundations will need to play a role, and one way to get more philanthropic dollars focused on this may be a philanthropic council to steward the initial funding effort.

Change the narrative. Green Communities had the support of visionaries who understood the value of the effort and worked to change how we talk about green building, including the head of Enterprise, a prominent real estate developer already committed to building healthy housing, and a nationally known pediatrician and environmental health advocate.

For the AFFH to work, we need to call forward visionaries in the housing space who understand the power and potential of this effort and can help set the narrative about fair housing in the broader public discourse.

Train and develop the nation’s housing planning workforce. When we launched Green Communities, planning and architecture schools did not teach green development. So, we had to think early on about how to engage and develop industry professionals. One solution was partnering with the Rose Architectural Fellowship.

An AFFH fellowship, along with training in graduate schools and at professional conferences, would help prepare a new workforce to implement AFFH in the years to come. Housing professionals would learn to connect current patterns of disparities to the need to redress the deep, ongoing impact of the old bigoted, racist practices that got us here.

Green Communities also followed up on the experiences of professionals implementing the criteria to continually refine the criteria based on real-time feedback. Doing the same in the case of the new AFFH rule will increase housing and planning departments’ likelihood of success.

What Comes Next

We realize this is quite a to-do list. The AFFH is worthy of such an effort. If advocates fail to support housing and planning departments as HUD releases the rule, we will miss a real opportunity to advance housing, racial, and environmental justice.

Whenever the full rule is released into the hands of housing and planning departments, the first departments that need to comply will likely be those who are coming up on their consolidated planning process with HUD.

Let’s not miss the handoff.

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Read more stories by Tiffany Manuel & Dana Bourland.



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