Housing USA: Charlotte

6 min read

Carson or Fair Housing?

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing has been gutted – and now there is a lawsuit. In January, Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), delayed an agency rule meant to desegregate U.S. cities. Now the affordable housing industry has filed NFHA et al v Carson, aiming to restore the rule. Regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, U.S. cities continue to slowly integrate, meaning that if enacted, the law could further improve a current positive trend. Charlotte, as a quintessentially New South city, embodies this progress.

The AFFH law that Carson, a Trump appointee, weakened was crafted to fulfill a mandate of the Fair Housing Act. The 1968 law said that local governments, along with stopping discrimination, should actively work to desegregate communities. For decades, this latter goal became an ambitious one that municipalities didn’t acknowledge and HUD didn’t enforce. In 2015, President Obama’s HUD passed AFFH as a way to give teeth to the mandate. To receive HUD block grants, municipalities would need to conduct an Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) that identified current segregation patterns, and then write an Analysis of Impediments (AI) that identifies some causes for this segregation, and how it can be reversed.

The law has been controversial, blasted by conservative critics as something that would force high-rise affordable projects onto rich white suburbs. In reality, AFFH still doesn’t come with much teeth, nor any top-down HUD dictates. HUD provides cities with guidelines and research data, namely a GIS mapping tool. These cities then conduct meetings where community members and officials analyze the data, find solutions and write AIs.

Renee Williams, an attorney who has studied AFFH for the National Housing Law Project, says that the identified solutions will vary depending on the city. They range from reforming public housing practices, to investing in underserved areas. In one well-known example, Westchester County, NY, was denied HUD funding for its exclusionary zoning. In Charlotte’s AI, the city found that private discrimination still exists against the disabled.

“Ultimately, what the rule wants to do is take on these vestiges of segregation,” said Williams. “But it’s not really meant to manufacture a particular outcome, because every community is going to be different.”

Carson’s overarching criticism of AFFH—expressed in a 2015 Washington Times editorial—is that it amounts to social engineering. More specifically, he thinks that making cities write desegregation plans will create expensive compliance issues. That is why, rather than abolishing the law, he merely delayed it until October of 2020, so that municipalities could have time to prepare for the AFH and AI process.

The plaintiff in this case against Carson-—which was filed to the U.S. District Court in DC—is the National Fair Housing Alliance, along with two Texas-based housing groups. Other housing agencies – including the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, and Williams’ National Housing Law Project, joined the amicus brief. Their argument is that without AFFH in place, HUD will distribute billions in grants without performing its desegregation oversight duties.

The fight over the policy comes at a time when U.S. cities have begun to desegregate organically. A 2010 Manhattan Institute study by Harvard economist Ed Glaeser found that since 1960, cities have gradually mixed by race, and that segregation levels are at their lowest since 1910. Charlotte, where I stayed all of June, is an example of where integration has occurred slowly.

Dating to the late 1890s, said local historian Tom Hanchett, various public and private policies had been used in Charlotte to divide the races. It began locally, through deed restrictions and segregated public spaces. As decades passed, this discrimination was codified into federal policy – via redlining, FHA home loans and segregated public housing. Charlotte’s settlement patterns thus took the shape of what has been called a “wedge and crescent.” That is, the city’s poor, mostly-black portion is shaped on the city map as a crescent that extends west, north and east around downtown. The city’s affluent white neighborhoods are laid out on the map in a wedge that begins on the south side and juts against the crescent in the downtown area.

Both these areas—the wealthy and poor ones—have with time expanded in reach across the city. A map published by CharlotteFive.com found that between 1970 and 2007, Charlotte’s poor population began to seep into richer areas, and vice versa, while both classes extended to the suburbs.

There are a number of causes for this relative integration, some of which echo the Manhattan Institute study. One, said Hanchett, is all the new development – including by HUD, and the Charlotte Mecklenberg Housing Partnership, a local housing nonprofit. While Charlotte’s early public housing was segregated, it was eventually demolished, and both of these entities have built mixed-income replacement housing. This has spurred diversity in the First Ward, Brightwalk and several areas north of downtown. Another factor has been immigrants spreading throughout the city and suburbs, namely on the east side.

The most important factor, though, has been the rise of a black professional class here. This has helped at least some portion of the local black population to rent or buy in nicer neighborhoods. I witnessed this firsthand while living in Wedgewood, a neighborhood in northern Charlotte that is one-third black, yet has a median household income of $63,000, and various professional-class trappings, from nice, sit-down restaurants to large new homes. Hanchett, who grew up in the South and specializes in researching Charlotte’s evolution as a New South city, has witnessed all this far longer.

“[There’s] just a total change from the world of black and white, separate and unequal,” he said of Charlotte.

Charlotte nonetheless still has obvious divides that unfold along this “wedge and crescent” shape, and in other ways, such as through the segregated public schools.  Charlotte’s AFFH report, along with its findings on the disabled, determined that Charlotte’s private market still has discriminatory home rental and loan practices – which may explain why some parts remain segregated. The theory behind AFFH is that it will impel cities, like Charlotte, to write reports that reverse all this, by publicizing the structural causes that maintain segregation. AFFH’s future, though, may depend on NFHA et al v Carson.

Story Contacts:
Renee Williams
Staff Attorney, National Housing Law Project
[email protected]

Tom Hanchett
Community Historian, Levine Museum of the New South
[email protected]