Open Up Those 'Burbs: Philanthropy and the Fight Against Residential Segregation

This week, Housing Secretary Julian Castro announced new rules designed to fight residential segregation. Amid heightened pressure from the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund and other top civil rights organizations, the Obama administration unveiled requirements that cities and towns analyze their housing patterns for racial bias and publicly report this information. In addition, communities will now need to set goals to further reduce segregation, and these goals will be tracked over time.

Where did all this momentum for change on housing come from? And how can funders capitalize on it? 

There is no doubt we are in living in a time of stark inequality on housing, marked by enduring residential segregationpatterns that dictate where kids go to school and explain why America's schools are as segregated now as when Brown v. Board of Education was decided. The problem exists nationwide. A day before Secretary Castro's announcement, for example, the Anti-Discrimination Center, acting on behalf of three African-American plaintiffs, charged the City of New York with perpetuating racial segregation by barring city residents from applying for housing in districts where they do not currently live.

Back in January, when we wrote about the upcoming Supreme Court decision on disparate impact, we knew it would be big, but now it appears it will be really big. Like, historic. Civil rights laws that have been on the books for four decades now have a better chance actual enforcement, after years of official passivity. 

Related: Disparate Impact: A Key Fight Over Housing and Finance, and the Funding Behind It

Earlier this year, we also wrote about exclusionary zoning. Our concern at that time was that not enough funders were focusing on how such local rules enforce housing discrimination by barring affordable multi-family housing that could enable lower-income parents to move to the suburbs and send their children to better public schools. We argued that fighting exclusionary zoning offered a way for funders to make the kind of systematic change in educational opportunities that so many claim to want. 

Related: Memo to Funders: Fight Exclusionary Zoning to Make Headway Against Inequality

Now, with a more favorable legal and political environment, it's a great moment for funders to get behind a push to challenge exclusionary zoning statutes. This will require some new thinking in the funding community.

First, housing funders need to prioritize fighting segregation and busting open the suburbs for low-income families in a way they haven't to date. Understandably, a huge amount of funder attention is focused on preserving federal housing assistance for the poor, including Section 8 and public housing. As well, with gentrification raging in cities across the country, more funders are keenly attuned to the need to preserve or create affordable housing within cities. Predatory lending and unfair foreclosures are other urgent problems that have lately occupied housing advocates. 

When we scanned the field in January, we found very few funders working to fight segregation and exclusionary zoning—or, for that matter, nonprofits that were squarely focused on this challenge. In fact, Ford and the Fund for New Jersey were the only foundations we could find that backed work in this area. The small Equitable Housing Institute is among the few nonprofits in the space. The Anti-Discrimination Center is another, and it's received very little philanthropic support. 

With the Supreme Court's decision and Obama's new changes to reduce segregation, now would be a good moment for housing funders to concentrate new resources on a battle that may previously have felt like a lost cause. 

But this is also a ripe opportunity for education funders, as well as anti-poverty funders in general. A mountain of evidence shows that students benefit from attending more integrated schools with higher-performing peers. But it's often hard for that to happen if their families can't move to the more affluent neighborhoods where such schools are located. In this sense, fighting exclusionary zoning may be a key leverage point for education funders who are anxious to find new ways to raise student achievement. 

The same goes for anti-poverty funders. There is a growing body of evidence that where you grow up has a huge effect of your life chances, and that kids do better in safer, more economically mixed neighborhoods. Of course, most parents know this instinctively, but residential housing patterns make it very difficult to act on that common sense. The price of admission to many suburban communities is the cost of a single-family home, when there is no reason that these communities couldn't have a greater number of more affordable apartment units. Pushing aside this entry barrier could be a game changer. 

One last point: This is another area, like criminal justice, where progressives and libertarians could find common cause. Libertarians may not like strong federal powers to fight discrimination, but they do tend to be against regulations that restrict market forces—and exclusionary zoning is a prime example of that.

Segregation forever? We hope not. For a whole bunch of reasons, this is an area ripe for big changes.