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Housing Equity in Practice, Not Just Theory

March 19, 2021

Property developers are creating company policies and taking tangible steps toward achieving greater housing equity, buoyed by a renewed national focus on antidiscrimination and closing the racial homeownership gap, experts said Tuesday at the Urban Land Institute’s virtual Housing Opportunity Conference.

While it may feel like the road to housing equity is long, with many stops and starts, “diversity and inclusion is a strategy that evolves over time,” said David Quart, Northeast regional real estate manager for civil engineering and design firm VHB. “It’s not something to hurry up and get done.”

Quart’s New York-based company has developed a recruiting initiative, partnering with local universities to find and hire diverse workers who are early in their careers and eager to help VHB evolve its services to cater to more communities. VHB is involved in many affordable housing projects in the New York suburbs, which often rouse community backlash. A diverse workforce familiar with a wide range of neighborhoods can communicate more intentionally with the community and lower the temperature of opposition, Quart said. “Addressing that is a challenge; there’s no one single policy or solution—it really needs to be a whole set of tools.”

Dawnita Wilson, vice president of diversity and inclusion at real estate investment firm JBG SMITH, said her company is launching a supplier diversity program in the near future. The program aims to ensure that JBG works with diverse vendors that can offer insights into many different markets. “We want to be more intentional with diversity,” Wilson said. “Whether you’re doing something internally in your workforce or externally in your community, intentionality and commitment are important.”

A Moment for Change

With an administration that has promised to make racial equity a cornerstone of its policies, the political environment is opportune for making headway on housing equity work, Ethan Handelman, deputy assistant secretary for multifamily housing at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said in one ULI session. He added that the challenges created by past governmental disinvestment in Black and other minority neighborhoods are “real and rooted in history. State, local, and federal governments built on segregation and exacerbated the wealth disparity.”

Handelman pointed to FHA insurance programs, which are compatible with aid programs like rental assistance, capital grants, and housing credits, as a means of reinvesting in neglected communities. “We want to create more and better opportunities in places where people want to live,” he said. “And the solutions for affordable housing line up nicely with the solutions for dealing with issues of segregation and disinvestment.”

That also extends to issues of vacancy and property blight. The National Association of REALTORS® is hosting a six-part webinar series, “Policy, Practice, Process: Transforming Neighborhoods through Equitable Revitalization,” the first installment of which also was held Tuesday. Liz Kozub, associate director of national leadership and education for the Center for Community Progress, spoke during the webinar “Systemic Vacancy: Community Costs and a Pathway Forward,” outlining the historic impact of racist policies such as redlining, blockbusting, and exclusionary zoning. “Our nation has historically enacted policies that perpetuated bad properties,” Kozub said. “Many of these policies created racial inequity and disparate impact on communities of color.”

COVID-19 also has disproportionately affected urban and low-income communities. NAR says it’s intensifying its focus on developing new, strategic approaches to revitalization in places where vacant properties remain common.

Further, “collaboration is a key part of addressing widespread vacancy and our country’s complicated past of racism and discrimination,” says Akilah Watkins, CEO and president of the Center for Community Progress, which is partnering with NAR for the webinar series. “Our success hinges on our ability to work together from community to national stages.”

Reconciling the Past

Local governments play a critical role in promoting housing equity as well, and some cities are already implementing policies and plans to achieve just that. Philadelphia was the first city in the nation to complete the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing process, unpacking in an 852-page report about the long-term ramifications locally of redlining and other housing policies. The city created a robust outreach program to get on-the-ground information from residents about their housing experiences, surveying more than 5,000 residents and holding three public hears on the topic.

Vincent Reina, faculty director of the Housing Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, said that during the process, it was important for the city to capture “those stories that have for far too long been undocumented” in its report. From the research, officials created a citywide housing plan called “Housing for Equity: An Action Plan for Philadelphia,” including measures to increase affordable housing and desegregate neighborhoods. But the plan is not meant as a one-time evaluation of fair housing. It will constantly be evolving to meet new needs, Reina said. “If we want to meaningfully address issues of discrimination, we can’t expect one plan to do that, two plans to do that. It requires a long-term, evolving response.”

REALTOR® Magazine writers Melissa Dittmann Tracey and Catherine Mesick contributed to this report.