Figuring Out How to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing

Things have changed dramatically at HUD, but there is still a long way to go. I am reminded of someone who is slowly rebuilding a car and turns the engine over for the first time – it’s a milestone, but there’s much work to be done before you can cruise around in a sweet ride.

Take, for example, adopting regulations to clearly define and expand what it means to “affirmatively further fair housing” (AFFH). A requirement of recipients of federal housing dollars (and a few others), this executive order mandates that programs and plans aren’t just neutral when it comes to segregation and fair housing but rather actively advance opportunity and integration. At the end of the Clinton administration draft rules were circulated and public comments were received, but this work was abandoned under Bush. Much to their credit, the new administration at HUD has moved quickly to rectify their 8-year absence on the topic.

HUD stepped into the Westchester lawsuit and briefly withheld the county’s CDBG funds, rightly scaring many recipients around the country to get serious about their obligation. In nearly every public appearance on the subject of opportunity or fair housing, HUD’s leadership mentions the issue and their intentions to take it seriously. And just last week, HUD hosted a meeting +  webcast + call-in to hear from the public on what new AFFH regulations should include.

MoveSmart.org, an organization I co-founded and direct, submitted the following comment to this meeting in response to their question about how a planning guide on AFFH for municipalities and counties could be improved:

A vast majority of both renters and buyers now begin and conduct a significant portion of their housing search online. While it is encouraging to hear the new Assistant Secretary address enforcing fair housing online, there’s been no discussion yet of using the web to actively promote fair housing. I think it is critical that the Planning Guide include explicit instructions on ways that new technologies can be used to affirmatively further fair housing. Outreach and education efforts should include online components and advertising, new affordable housing developments should be marketed online, and neighborhoods challenged by housing seeker prejudice and ignorance should promote themsleves to online housing seekers in order to reduce racial and ethnic segregation and affirmatively further fair housing.

Additionally, recipients of federal funds should be compelled to both use the web to share information about their planning process, share the actual plan documents in real time, and solicit feedback on their various plans before they are finalized. It would be fantastic for HUD to model this behavior by continuing to solicit feedback for this process via the web – even adopting some of the more innovative and participatory discussion features used on WhiteHouse.gov and their “Open for Questions” system.

While it’s great that HUD is hosting (and promises to continue to host) webcasts on the soon-to-be-draft regulations, the real test is on how these regulations will compel municipalities and counties across the country to become more interactive and participatory. HUD should view what is already happening on WhiteHouse.gov and happened during the transition as a minimum requirement, not a maximum suggestion.

My specific recommendations:

  • All plans funded with federal housing dollars must be posted online in a forum that allows for both user suggestion and user voting on suggestions on their fair housing components separate and apart from other sections of said plans (see Obama Urban Policy for an excellent example of such a tool).
  • Comments submitted offline must be entered into the online system, and comments must be held open for a meaningful period of time (minimum of 20 days).
  • Comments must be archived and that archive must be shared to the public, online, and in a non-proprietary format.
  • Notices of upcoming open comments must be shared via RSS or some other standard, non-proprietary web publishing format.
  • All of this information should be aggregated into HUD’s own website where the public can subscribe via RSS or e-mail to notifications of new “open for comment” plans by geography or type of plan.
  • Incentives should be awarded when next-generation innovative and collaborative solutions like the Livable Streets Initiative are employed.

At a reception earlier today the Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity at HUD, John Trasvina, said that, “I read [Justin’s] blog to learn about new technologies” after I asked him about this posts’ topic during a Q&A session. This post is specifically written for him and others at HUD who are now in the process of drafting these regulations and planning how to accept comments on them.

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