Breaking cycles of poverty: How not to cluster the poor in broken neighborhoods

Metro Atlanta could be the poster child for housing policies that, intentionally or not, have concentrated lower income households in non-white neighborhoods that aren’t pleasant places. The U.S. Supreme Court and the Obama administration intend to change the way policies are implemented, and the policies.

Imperial Hotel

The Imperial Hotel, in downtown Atlanta, was renovated in 1995 with funding from the Low Income Tax Credit Program. All 120 rooms were set aside for low income residents. Credit:

In the world of housing advocates and developers, the actions coming out of Washington this past summer are most compelling. They could change the way business has been conducted for decades, according to panelists at a quarterly forum sponsored Wednesday by Atlanta Housing Forum.

“The Supreme Court decision is really scary when you look at it, because it’s not built on what we intended to do, it’s built on things that maybe we don’t control,” said Laurel Hart, who directs the Housing Finance and Development Division of the Georgia Department of Community Affairs.

Hart referred to the outcome of long-standing Georgia DCA policies regarding low-income housing tax credits. The outcomes in Georgia are similar to those at the heart of a test case heard by the Supreme Court involving the Texas Department of Community Affairs.

Georgia’s policies for allocating the tax credits have resulted in affordable housing in metro Atlanta being concentrated mainly in south Atlanta, south DeKalb and south Clayton counties, and the town centers of counties such as Hall and Cherokee counties, according to maps provided by Mike Carnathan, a researcher with the Atlanta Regional Commission.

Housing Forum, low income tax credit projects

Georgia’s formula for allocation low income tax credits has resulted in affordable housing being concentrated in poor communities. Credit: ARC

The reason is the matrix of rules that determine where Georgia seeks to encourage the development of affordable housing, according to Hart. Evidently, the matrix has had an unintended impact and the matrix needs to be changed, she said.

“If the end results of our selection process means we are primarily building in high minority concentration areas with high poverty, high crime, than we need to make changes,” Hart said.

The policies should be based on a number of decisions influenced by the court ruling, she said.

“It doesn’t prohibit us from building in a blighted area,” Hart said. “But when we do, I think it has to be much more thoughtful. I don’t think we can just build a tax credit project in a minority concentrated area with high crime, bad schools, and we’re going to say that just because we build here we’re making that community better. … Are we just building a property, or are we community building? Are we making a community better place for people to live?”

Hart was one of three speakers on the panel. The others offered their perspective of the federal actions.

Tera Doak is an attorney and self-avowed “geek” on housing law. Doak serves as associate general counsel for Habitat for Humanity International.

`Housing Forum, low income in minority neighborhoods

Georgia’s formula for allocating low income tax credits has resulted in affordable housing being concentrated in non-white communities. Credit: ARC

In her closing comments in the first segment of the program Doak noted: “One of the points I’m trying to make is there’s still a lot of uncertainty out there in respect to these claims, and it will be really interesting to see how all this plays out.”

Doak noted that the Supreme Court ruling did reaffirm a long-standing ruling about what it takes to make a case of disparate impact in fair housing lawsuits. And HUD did issue a final ruling that will affect programs including the Community Development Block Grant.

Still, from a lawyer’s perspective, a lot of litigation remains before the final policies are determined.

“It remains to be seen how courts ill apply, ‘disparate impact,’” Doak said. “Additional cases will be brought that will flesh that out.”

The headliner of the presentation was Ethan Handelman, vice president for policy and advocacy for the National Housing Conference.

Incidentally, NHC presented its 2015 Housing Visionary Award in June to Piece by Piece, a regional initiative to address the foreclosure crisis. Piece by Piece is staffed by the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Inc., which helps staff Atlanta Regional Housing.

Handelmann was enthused by the rulings from the Supreme Court and HUD. He focused on the notion that the court had reaffirmed long-standing interpretations of fair housing.

Housing Forum, housing plus transportation costs

Metro Atlanta ranks sixth highest in the nation in terms of the combined cost of housing and transporation. Credit: ARC

“In some ways, what the Supreme Court says is, ‘status quo continues,’” Handelmann said. “By reaffirming that standard, it added a lot of energy to this conversation and remind people of what the Fair Housing Act of 1968 means, and how we can change communities for the better.”

Handelmann discussed the sometimes competing visions of fair housing. Some advocates call for community development. Others frame the fair housing issues of access and choice as relevant in civil rights.

“Too often, we’re fighting each other,” he said.

Handelmann’s comments reminded of the 2013 Supreme Court decision that wiped away crucial parts of the Votings Rights Act of 1965. The court determined that states with histories of racial discrimination no longer need approval from the federal government to change voting laws.

Obama called last month for Congress to renew the provision. On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled against providing Shelby County, Ala., with more than $2 million to cover its legal costs for bringing the case to the Supreme Court, according to a report in