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Progress for More Housing Choices

Ted Wimpey, director of the Fair Housing Project of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity and Chair of the VAHC, recently wrote this opinion piece published in the Times Argus that discusses the Fair Housing Act and the new statewide initiative, “Thriving Communities: Building a vibrant, inclusive Vermont”:

Seldom does the unveiling of a seemingly obscure federal regulation become a big news event. That’s what happened Wednesday, July 8, however, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released its long-awaited rule on “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” The rule won cheers from fair housing advocates — including me — who believe it could be a major step forward in expanding housing opportunity for millions of Americans. And it meets jeers from anti-“big” government skeptics who see it as an example of egregious federal overreach. The skeptics have it wrong, but before I explain why, some background: The phrase “affirmatively furthering fair housing” — a tongue-twister, admittedly — has its origin in a landmark piece of civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. That law essentially declared that Americans have a right to choose where they live without being discriminated against based on several criteria including race, color and national origin. The Fair Housing Act and its amendments made it illegal, among other things, to refuse to rent or sell real estate to someone because of race, national origin or disability, among other “protected classes.” But the law, passed by Congress soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and in the face of widespread racial segregation and social unrest, went beyond banning discrimination. It also sought to desegregate neighborhoods and to promote development of more inclusive communities, so that people with a wide range of incomes and backgrounds would have opportunities to live in optimal-opportunity areas with access to good jobs, good schools and other quality goods and services. Alas, the vision of fully expanding opportunity and breaking up concentrations of poverty has hardly been fulfilled. Nearly a half-century after the act’s passage, residential segregation by race remains pervasive in major metropolitan areas across the country; and economic inequality, reflected in residential demographic patterns, continues to widen. Reversing these trends, and proactively opening up housing choices for people in protected classes, is what HUD’s rule is all about. That was the intent of the act’s primary sponsors, back in the Civil Rights era, so this is by no means a “new” federal policy priority. What’s new is that the lofty old legislative phrase, “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” has been given an operational meaning in service of the act’s equal-opportunity ideal — an ideal that most Americans embrace. In particular, the rule provides guidance to states, counties and municipalities that receive federal development funds on how to meet their fair housing obligations by identifying and overcoming historic barriers to equal housing opportunity. Making sure that federal tax dollars are used to protect fair housing rights and to expand opportunity — rather than to perpetuate pockets of segregation or poverty — hardly qualifies as “overreach.” It’s a matter of implementing longstanding principles of fairness. It’s also a matter of holding recipients of federal grants accountable to the values embodied in the Fair Housing Act. Vermont benefits from various forms of federal assistance including that aimed at adding to the affordable housing stock. The continuing shortage of affordable housing has been critical for years, and remains so. More than half of Vermont’s renters are paying more of their income for total housing cost than they can be reasonably expected to afford, and home ownership remains out of reach for many people. What does affirmatively furthering fair housing mean in Vermont? At a minimum it means maintaining vigilance regarding most blatant housing discrimination, as our predominantly white state welcomes increasing numbers of refugees and other people of color. Moreover, Vermont’s own fair housing law goes beyond the federal act in extending protection to people for their sexual orientation or receipt of public assistance. But it also means recognizing, and overcoming, more subtle systemic barriers to fair and affordable housing choice. Where planning and zoning regulations effectively preclude the development of affordable and mixed income housing in high-opportunity areas near town centers, for example, communities need to consider how they can revise policies to make them more inclusive. After all, communities thrive when they welcome a wide variety of residents, with assorted skills and backgrounds, who can drive the local economy and enliven the local culture. That’s the premise of a new statewide initiative, “Thriving Communities: Building a vibrant, inclusive Vermont.” (For more information, go to the website, The aim is to promote the development of affordable housing, especially in mixed-income areas near town centers with ready access to transit and quality services — in other words, to “affirmatively further fair housing” in a Vermont way and make communities thrive for us all.

#CVOEO #FairHousing #OpinionEditorial

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