In choosing which votes to include in the annual Poverty Scorecard, we consult with national experts in more than twenty different issue areas. This helps us to identify the full scope of the votes most important to poor people and ensure that the Poverty Scorecard fully reflects Congressional action (and inaction) in addressing the complex needs of low-income Americans. This year, a number of the most important poverty-related votes fell into three categories: employment, health care and housing.
Housing, a basic need and human right, offers stability for many families, which in turn helps them secure employment, improve health outcomes, and increase income. But for a growing number of Americans, housing costs drain a large and unhealthy percentage of monthly family income. In fact, half of renters nationally are considered cost-burdened, meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. With an increased demand for rental housing and a shrinking supply of low-cost options, low-income renters struggle to find adequate, affordable housing.
Beyond affordability, where affordable housing is located matters. Research demonstrates that families benefit from living in low-poverty neighborhoods, which typically provide more access to employment, quality education, and lower crime-rates, which lead to healthier and more successful outcomes. Unfortunately, entrenched patterns of residential racial segregation still define most American communities. Only when there are laws and policies in place to combat this housing discrimination will we as a nation begin to heal from this shameful history.
The federal government plays a significant role in promoting equal access to affordable housing by creating laws and funding housing-related programs. In the past session, however, the U.S. House of Representatives attacked these programs and policies with three major votes.
The Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program assists families renting housing in the private market. Households that receive vouchers generally pay 30 percent of their income towards rent and utilities with the voucher covering the rest. Vouchers provide much needed rental assistance, reduce homelessness, lift people out of poverty, and allow low-income households a choice of where to live. Despite the high need for vouchers, there is only enough funding allocated for one in four income-eligible families to receive voucher assistance nationally. And an amendment brought before the House of Representatives this year aimed to cut the program’s funding by 10 percent. The House rejected the amendment by a vote of 127-279.
Two other housing bills included in this year’s Poverty Scorecard attacked civil rights laws aimed at redressing housing discrimination. First, the House voted on an amendment to prevent the Department of Justice (DOJ) from bringing housing discrimination cases under the disparate impact theory. Disparate impact claims allow the DOJ and advocates to challenge seemingly neutral policies that result in discriminatory outcomes against protected classes, without having to prove the higher burden of intent. Although the House rejected the amendment to prohibit the use of this essential civil rights tool, the Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that challenges the use of disparate impact analysis. The decision by the Court could shape civil rights and residential racial segregation in the future, for better or for worse.
Another amendment targeted a proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) rule concerning Fair Housing Act’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) mandate, which requires those who are subject to the law to take active steps to overcome impediments to fair housing choice. However, a 2008 analysis by the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity labeled HUD’s enforcement of AFFH “failed” and a Government Accountability Office investigation reached similar conclusions. Following the release of these reports, HUD increased enforcement of AFFH, through supporting civil rights litigation initiated by private parties, investigating fair housing administrative complaints alleging AFFH violations, conducting compliance reviews of local governments subject to the AFFH requirement, and the threatened withholding of federal housing and community development funds to governments failing to meet their AFFH obligation. HUD’s proposed AFFH rule aims to strengthen HUD’s commitment to FHA and provide tangible measures by which HUD will engage subject communities and public housing authorities on issues of disparate impact, segregation, fair housing choice, and community inclusivity. Nevertheless, by a vote of 219 to 207, the House passed an amendment that would prohibit funding to implement and administer an updated structure and process to affirmatively further the FHA. Fortunately, the Senate did not give this proposal consideration.
In one of these AFFH cases, the Shriver Center, on behalf of two former public housing families, and HOPE Fair Housing challenged the Aurora Housing Authority’s decision not to replace demolished family public housing due to pressure from the local government and community NIMBYism. The Shriver Center and HOPE each filed fair housing complaints with HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, alleging that the housing authority’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act, including the housing authority’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing. HUD initiated a compliance review and found a violation of the housing authority’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing, among other civil rights violations. The housing authority entered into a voluntary compliance agreement with HUD to replace the demolished family public housing in communities of opportunity and settlement agreements with the Shriver Center and HOPE providing compensatory damages, attorneys fees, and replacement housing options for the Shriver Center’s clients. “This is one of the first cases nationally where the decision not to replace demolished family public housing was determined to violate a housing authority’s duty to affirmatively further fair housing,” said Kate Walz, Director of Housing Justice at the Shriver Center. “HUD’s skilled investigation unveiled important facts about the level discriminatory animus present here and ultimately led to a resolution that will benefit the families who were displaced due to the demolition.”