Stephen was still a teenager on the north side of St. Louis when his dad, a police officer, was killed during a robbery in their neighborhood. Despite the trauma, Stephen later joined the police force to continue his dad’s legacy and commitment to safe and inclusive neighborhoods. But even before the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, Stephen (not his real name) yearned to right local wrongs through broader approaches. “The darkest forces weren’t necessarily the ones getting arrested,” he observed. “So I retired from the police force after 22 years, essentially to chase after a different type of perpetrator.” Wanting to focus on policies at multiple levels of government that “were causing the disparities that fueled increasing crime and violence in St. Louis,” Stephen pivoted to civil rights enforcement, tracking policy violations and innovations at a government agency in the St. Louis region.
I met Stephen in February while in St. Louis for a conference his agency organized on HUD’s recently strengthened Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH ) rule, which increases local accountability in promoting residential integration. He wasn’t a speaker at the event, but hearing his story reinforced the importance of combating the deeply entrenched and often invisible causes of segregation.
Recent events and new academic research, including landmark findings by Raj Chetty and colleagues testifying to the benefits of low-poverty neighborhoods for low-income kids, the updated AFFH rule, and the Supreme Court’s disparate impact decision upholding other tools to fight segregation have brought renewed attention to these challenges. Meanwhile, underlying these developments, poverty has failed to decline since the recession and, as recent Brookings research shows, has become more concentrated in neighborhoods of extreme poverty.
How can regional leaders and practitioners respond to these challenges? I was in St. Louis to discuss one part of the solution—advancing more mixed-income neighborhoods. In the Chicago region, our housing and community development-focused firm, BRicK Partners, is collaborating with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), the Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), and 10 metropolitan Chicago public housing authorities, with support and leadership from HUD, to develop and operate the Regional Housing Initiative (RHI)
RHI is a small, systemic, and potentially scalable “work around” of a very specific set of programs and policies that contribute inadvertently to regional inequities. A flexible and regional pool of resources working across the many traditional public housing authority (PHA) and municipal jurisdictions in the Chicago region, RHI increases quality rental housing in neighborhoods with good jobs, schools, and transit access and provides more housing options to households on Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) waiting lists. Recognizing that the federal formulas allocating HCVs to each individual PHA are not responsive to population, employment, or poverty trends, RHI partners convert and pool a small portion of their HCVs to provide place-based operating subsidies in support of development activity that advances local and regional priorities. RHI supports both opportunity areas with strong markets and quality amenities as well as revitalization areas where public and private sector partners are planning and investing toward that end. In both cases, the bulk of RHI investments are in the suburbs, where the PHAs are smaller and the rental stock more limited.
RHI has committed over 550 RHI subsidies to nearly 40 mixed-income and supportive housing developments across Chicagoland, supporting more than 2,200 total apartments, over half of which are in opportunity areas. The pooling and transferring of subsidies has allowed RHI to support proposals that local jurisdictions wouldn’t be able to undertake otherwise.
Although a number of innovative programs around the country provide assistance to households moving to opportunity areas, RHI is unique its focus on increasing the supply of housing in opportunity areas regionwide. Its approach is consistent with lessons learned from Brookings’ work on Confronting Suburban Poverty in America: With CMAP as a strong quarterback, RHI has addressed the shortage of rental housing in the suburbs by working across jurisdictions, developing shared priorities, metrics and selection criteria, and by working with IHDA and other stakeholders to leverage greater private sector investment.
This recipe for success is now being deployed in communities beyond Chicago. Baltimore is preparing to advertise for its first round of developer applicants under the leadership of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, with regionwide PHAs, the State Housing Finance Agency, and a regional housing counselor lined up as supportive partners. In St. Louis, the regional planning and housing finance organizations both attended the February conference where I met Stephen, signaling the potential for greater collaboration for both these entities and the PHAs.
Like many housing advocates and professionals, my colleagues and I at BRicK Partners derive a lot of satisfaction from supporting communities like Baltimore and St. Louis and individuals like Stephen and his peers with replicable best practices. Given today’s political realities, we don’t expect major changes in the federal formulas and statutes behind some of the regional inequities, but “work arounds” such as RHI can still scale up. Nationwide, just a small percentage of HCVs have been converted for such flexible supply-side solutions, but there is reason to be hopeful that this will change. The Regional Mobility Demonstration proposed in the 2017 budget as well as federal public housing voucher legislation passed by the House of Representatives earlier this year are signs that there is real momentum to advance regional strategies that increase access to opportunity for low income residents and families.