The University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity has issued a report, The Rise of White-Segregated Subsidized Housing. While the report is focused on Minnesota, it raises important issues about affordable housing program demographics throughout the country:
- To what extent do the populations served by programs match those of their catchment areas?
- To what extent do the served populations match the eligible populations of their catchment areas?
- To what extent do the served populations match the demographics of those who have applied for the programs?
- To what extent do variants among those metrics matter?
The Executive Summary opens,
Subsidized housing in Minneapolis and Saint Paul is segregated, and this segregation takes two forms – one well-known, and the other virtually unknown.
At this point it is widely recognized that most Minneapolis and Saint Paul subsidized housing is concentrated in racially diverse or segregated neighborhoods, with few subsidized or otherwise-affordable units in affluent, predominately white areas. Because subsidized units are very likely to be occupied by families of color, this pattern increases the region’s overall degree of segregation.
But what has been overlooked until today, at least publicly, is that a small but important minority of subsidized projects are located in integrated or even-predominately white areas. Unlike typical subsidized housing, however, the residents of these buildings are primarily white – in many instances, at a higher percentage than even the surrounding neighborhood. These buildings thus reinforce white residential enclaves within the urban landscape, and intensify segregation even further.
What’s more, occupancy is not the only thing distinguishing these buildings from the average subsidized housing project. They are often visually spectacular, offering superior amenities – underground parking, yoga and exercise studios, rooftop clubrooms – and soaring architecture. Very often, these white-segregated subsidized projects are created by converting historic buildings into housing, with the help of federal low-income housing tax credits, historic tax credits, and other sources of public funding. Frequently, these places are designated artist housing, and – using a special exemption obtained from Congress by Minnesota developers in 2008 – screen applicants on the basis of their artistic portfolio or commitment to an artistic craft.
These places cost far more to create than traditional subsidized housing, and include what are likely the most expensive subsidized housing developments in Minnesota history, both in terms of overall cost and per unit cost. These include four prominent historic conversions, all managed by the same Minneapolis-based developer – the Carleton Place Lofts ($430,000 per unit), the Schmidt Artist Lofts ($470,000 per unit), the upcoming Fort Snelling housing conversion ($525,000 per unit), and the A-Mill Artist lofts ($665,000 per unit). The combined development cost of these four projects alone exceeds $460 million. For reference, this is significantly more than the public contribution to most of the region’s sports stadiums; it is $40 million less than the public contribution to the controversial downtown football stadium.
These four buildings contained a total of 870 units of subsidized housing, most of which is either studio apartments or single-bedroom. For the same expense, using 2014 median home prices, approximately 1,590 houses could have been purchased in the affluent western suburb of Minnetonka.
In short, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are currently operating what is, in effect, a dual subsidized housing system. In this system, the majority of units are available in lower-cost, utilitarian developments located in racially segregated or diverse neighborhoods. These units are mostly occupied by families of color. But an important subset of units are located in predominately white neighborhoods, in attractive, expensive buildings. These units, which frequently are subject to special screening requirements, are mostly occupied by white tenants.
As a matter of policy, these buildings are troubling: they capture resources intended for the region’s most disadvantaged, lowest-income families, and repurpose those resources towards the creation of greater segregation – which in turn causes even more harm to those same families.
Legally, they may well run afoul of the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights law. Recent developments have established that the Fair Housing Act forbids public or private entities from discriminating in the provision of housing by taking actions that create a disparate impact on protected classes of people, including racial classes. Moreover, recipients of HUD funding, such as the state and local entities which contribute to the development of these buildings, have an affirmative obligation to reduce segregation and promote integration in housing. (1-2)
No doubt, this report will spur a lot of soul searching in Minnesota. It may also spur some litigation. Other communities with subsidized housing programs should take a look at themselves in the mirror and ask if they like what they see. They should also ask whether federal judges would like it.