Connecticut Law Tribune, May 29, 2014
Connecticut is racially, ethnically, and economically segregated. This segregation hurts us all because it keeps people of color, who on average earn about half of whites, from equal access to critical resources like good schools. We also know that the effect of unequal access to those resources that lead to success in life is generational – if parents do not have access to opportunity, it increases the likelihood that their children will be "stuck in place," as recent research by sociologist Patrick Sharkey of New York University demonstrates. It is good to know we now have a strong advocate for improving access to affordable housing in areas where it is needed.
We are seeing positive movement in Connecticut with more resources being put into schools and housing. But we need to pay more attention to the growing body of research telling us that while targeting investments in areas that are struggling is critical and must continue, we will get the best return on investment if we simultaneously improve access to opportunity by providing affordable housing in areas that are thriving.
Studies also show that if inclusionary housing is done right, with attractive to-scale mixed-income construction located away from areas of concentrated poverty, there are no adverse impacts on the economically-integrated neighborhoods. In fact, the diversity created by such inclusion is likely to be positive for all concerned. This is particularly important in school settings because it gives children the benefit of heterogeneous student bodies more representative of the working world in their future.
Across the country, other states and regions have started to tackle this issue with positive results. In the metropolitan areas of Chicago, Baltimore, and Dallas "mobility counseling" agencies have provided information to thousands of government housing subsidy holders who have successfully moved to higher opportunity areas, with thriving schools and low levels of crime. "Mobility counseling" according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is "designed to assist families with Housing Choice Vouchers (formally known as Section 8) to move from high-poverty to low-poverty neighborhoods. It is no cure-all; our impoverished areas need all manner of support regardless, but it does expand opportunities for some.
In New Jersey, where every town has a legal obligation to take on its fair share of affordable housing, a recent study by Princeton University professor Douglas Massey demonstrated that there are no negative effects in neighborhoods where more affordable housing is provided and, as is the case with mobility counseling programs, families who move see meaningful, and in some cases dramatic, changes in health, education, and employment outcomes.
Fortunately for Connecticut, a new civil rights non-profit, Open Communities Alliance, has just been launched to focus attention on how these kinds of innovative and successful strategies foster access to opportunity for people of color and housing integration. With support of partners like the Ford Foundation and the Connecticut Health Foundation, and with a keen awareness of ensuring the integrity of successful neighborhoods, the alliance focuses on promoting policies that locate subsidized housing near schools that are thriving, rethinking municipal zoning to make more room for mixed-income affordable housing, and promoting a more expansive and robust mobility counseling program in Connecticut. As a client of Yale Law School's Legislative Advocacy clinic the alliance has enhanced capacity to produce thoughtful and well-researched policy analyses.
The alliance is fortunate to have Erin Boggs at its helm. Boggs is a leading voice on equity in housing and economic opportunity in Connecticut and is a smart, talented young leader. Her background as a fair housing and civil rights attorney and her personal experience attending racially and ethnically diverse public schools in Washington, D.C., make her ideally suited to lead this effort. The alliance's board also includes seasoned poverty and housing advocates including J. L. Pottenger of Yale Law School, Philip Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council in Washington, and Kaaryn Gustafson of the University of Connecticut School of Law. We wish every success to this new and critical venture and hope the bar will lend its enthusiastic support.