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Every neighborhood can be a good neighborhood

In a media environment where affordable housing often takes a back seat to other pressing issues, it’s gratifying to see coverage of housing segregation in a national outlet like the New York Times. But it’s clear that while its news reporting on housing can be excellent, the Times editorial board has some way to go before it truly understands the challenges and opportunities in affordable housing development today. It’s incumbent on the housing community to educate the media in all parts of the country, so that the true affordable housing story can be accurately told.

In his recent online opinion column, Thomas B. Edsall writes about longstanding issues regarding housing mobility. While he is correct that place has an indelible influence on the life trajectories of all people, rich, poor and in the middle, he blames something he calls the “poverty housing industry” for the disparities experienced by people with low incomes and people of color. Edsall’s views on this matter are simply out of step with the realities on the ground. We need both mobility strategies and investment in struggling neighborhoods to achieve housing opportunity for all.
We can’t abandon struggling neighborhoods
The concentration of people with low incomes in distressed neighborhoods is largely the result of more than a century of federal, state and local housing, transportation and employment policies (just to name a few). As Sunday’s article on housing segregation in Ferguson, Mo., demonstrates, a Housing Choice Voucher isn’t going to help you move out of a distressed neighborhood if it won’t cover the rent in a higher-opportunity place, or if landlords in those places refuse to rent to voucher holders. On the other side, land is costly in more desirable neighborhoods, which puts affordable housing developers in the position of building fewer homes, and helping fewer people, when they build in higher-opportunity communities.
Moving every single American to a “good” ZIP code simply isn’t feasible. It wouldn’t be just to uproot entire communities, and even if we tried, the necessary financial capital and political and neighborhood good will would be in short supply. So what happens to the families left behind? Abandoning those neighborhoods, those people, is not an option. To end housing segregation and ensure all people have access to opportunity, we need a multifaceted approach: creating opportunities to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and revitalizing neighborhoods in need. That’s why so many nonprofit housing efforts across the country—like those we honored at this year’s Gala—focus on comprehensive community development with housing at the center of success. Good schools, safe neighborhoods, access to health care and to job opportunities anchored by housing people with low incomes can afford are the work of the nonprofit housing community, and it’s work we need more of.
Market forces drive affordable housing development
You wouldn’t know it from Edsall’s focus on large nonprofit developers, but more than two-thirds of subsidized housing development is done by for-profits. In fact, the ability for private developers to turn a profit on affordable housing development is a key part of the success of the Low Income Housing Tax Credit, a public-private partnership that has created nearly 3 million affordable rental homes. Of course, that one program is not enough to meet the entirety of the need, which is why states and localities have developed their own funding sources and why advocacy for the National Housing Trust Fund continues to be important. But slamming a market-based system for operating in a market-driven way simply doesn’t make sense.
Subsidized housing is a small part of housing for low-income households overall, but it usually provides higher-quality housing. Edsall singles out the two largest and most successful nonprofit community development intermediaries while ignoring the private, unsubsidized slumlords that own the vast majority of the housing in areas of concentrated poverty. Some of the most successful community development investments replace dilapidated, neglected housing with high-quality housing coupled with social services.
What’s in play, and what’s at stake
It’s fine for well-intentioned people to speak and write critically about aspects of the way we make affordable housing happen in this country. In fact, it’s that critical thinking that will help us improve our work and be of even greater service to our communities. We need to have this conversation and we need leading members of the media to bring attention to it in a constructive and accurate way. But criticism in the absence of other alternatives can come at a steep price. When the Washington Post published a scathing but inaccurate series on the HOME program, it gave cover to those in Congress who were looking to slash housing funding. Four years later, HOME is at risk of total elimination. It’s low-income families and distressed communities that will suffer if columns like Edsall’s kick up a groundswell of support for the idea that nonprofit affordable housing developers are nothing more than another part of the problem.
The ball is in our court
In the end, all of us in the housing community have responsibility for educating the media, policy makers and other thought leaders about our work to help people and communities thrive. Affordable housing development and finance are complicated, and there are many parts of it that operate just like any other business. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come together as a purpose-driven movement. This is also why the language we use to describe our work is so important. We all must tell the affordable housing and community development story, one that accounts for the environment we work in, the challenges we face and the mission and passion we bring to the work. By building positive relationships with local media, being a resource and keeping them informed about the big picture, we will increase support for our work and help more people understand why affordable housing is the foundation of success for people and communities.
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