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Making Room: Arlington Can’t Afford to Ignore Fair Housing Anymore

 Making Room is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely those of the authors.

Guest column by Kellen MacBeth and Michael Pruitt

Arlington County has an opportunity to develop critical policies to address the ongoing negative impacts of over 100 years of racial segregation and discrimination in our housing market.

In fall 2020, county staff released a draft Fair Housing Plan and the accompanying Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice (AI) report which consolidated data on housing segregation and its continuing impact on our community.

The Analysis is comprehensive, detailing how the color of your skin and the neighborhood in which you live drastically impacts your life expectancy, educational attainment, income, employment, and poverty level. It makes abundantly clear that there are massive disparities between white residents and residents of color that are shutting many of our neighbors out of Arlington’s prosperity.

However, instead of being a serious attempt to implement Arlington’s 2019 Equity Resolution and meaningfully address our legacy of segregation, the draft Fair Housing Plan appears to be a bureaucratic paperwork exercise. The plan is a 10-page rehash of existing programs and half-hearted measures that have produced little evidence of progress toward eliminating obstacles to fair housing in a meaningful way. Arlington County’s elected leaders and County Manager have failed to acknowledge the clear political will in our community to address these longstanding issues.

Arlington’s draft Fair Housing Plan attempts to follow Obama-era federal guidance, but fails. Under past guidance from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), communities must tie their theoretical aims to specific, quantifiable goals. Arlington’s draft plan contains no such metrics, no way to monitor success or failure, and no way for the public to hold our leaders accountable.

If Arlington County truly wants to make good on their statements supporting racial equity, they should consider the following changes.

  • Create goals and objectives specific to the inequality and disparity experienced by residents in different racial/ethnic groups. Significant amounts of research show that race-blind policy solutions fail to address racial inequality. To address these issues and serve residents of color requires difficult, often uncomfortable conversations and a willingness to tackle the roots of problems directly.
  • Develop specific metrics by which to judge the success or failure of the county’s goals in the Fair Housing Plan. If we’re to measure effectiveness and allow the public to gauge program success, then we need concrete metrics tied to each goal. The draft Fair Housing Plan lacks a single metric or target. The community deserves enough information to determine whether the policies should be continued, changed, or stopped in the future.
  • Develop a cross-departmental comprehensive strategy to address the inequality and disparities rampant in segregated neighborhoods created by historic redlining and discrimination, known as Modified Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty (R/ECAPs). Arlingtonians living in Modified R/ECAPs experience disparities in life expectancy, educational attainment, income, labor market engagement, and poverty level. Housing policy alone cannot address the varied issues arising from concentrated poverty and segregated neighborhoods. To end these community-illnesses, we need a whole-of-government approach and the committed support of our local government.
  • Develop specific goals and actions to address the severe disparity between Black residents and non-Black residents in Arlington. Research shows that the factors supporting continued housing segregation among Black residents are different than those facing other ethnic groups and are the product of targeted discrimination, both historic and ongoing. Targeted discrimination requires targeted solutions. Today, a Black child born in Arlington has the lowest likelihood to thrive of any and all racial/ethnic groups. Without focused attention, Arlington’s vibrant Black community may be shut out of the prosperity and positive outcomes enjoyed by other residents.

In addition to the potential zoning changes and policies to address discrimination against residents of color exiting the criminal justice system referenced in the draft plan, the county should include the following policies:

  • Expand eligibility and funding for the Housing Grant Program to address significant unmet need within the county.
  • Introduce a mortgage assistance program for homebuyers of color to increase the number of non-White residents who are able to successfully transition to homeownership within the county.
  • Provide mobility counseling for renters to encourage and provide information that helps increase integrated residential neighborhoods.
  • Protect income-assisted renters from housing discrimination by updating the County Human Rights Ordinance, as required by Virginia’s Fair Housing Law.

These recommendations are just the start of how Arlington County can better serve residents and reduce housing segregation. The next steps require sustained engagement with all impacted groups and are critical to identifying what matters most to our residents. County staff are currently reviewing comments received from a survey that closed last month on the draft Fair Housing Plan and we hope they, along with Arlington’s leaders, understand how critical it is to not miss this opportunity to address the significant racial disparities that exist within our community.

Kellen MacBeth, is a housing and tenant advocate, former chair of Arlington’s Tenant-Landlord Commission (TLC), Federal management consultant, and an Arlington resident since 2005. Michael Pruitt is a housing advocate, veteran, former member of the TLC’s Housing Discrimination Subcommittee, and a researcher at The Urban Institute. Opinions here are their own.

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