Will Philly’s new fair housing plan advance without pressure from HUD?

In 2016 Philadelphia became one of the first major cities to implement Barack Obama’s groundbreaking fair housing regulation. After a sometimes-acrimonious public comment period, the city submitted its plan to tackle fair housing issues to HUD at the end of 2016, although there are real questions about what the results of the laborious process will mean under Donald Trump’s administration.

The process Philly just went through represents an effort to remedy historical failures of the 1968 Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Act. After an abortive early attempt at enforcement from George Romney’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), presidential administrations of both parties proved largely unwilling intervene in local housing policy controversies—locking in place stark patterns of segregation.

Obama’s 2015 affirmatively furthering fair housing (AFFH) rule required cities and counties to analyze barriers to integration and come up with a plan for addressing them. The regulation’s late term adoption meant, however, that the actual enforcement of the rule would be left to the new presidential administration.

Given the law’s history, any outcome in the presidential race would have left the future of the AFFH rule in doubt. But Trump’s choice for HUD secretary leaves little question about the new administration’s attitude towards the regulation. In 2015 Ben Carson denounced the AFFH rule for replicating “the failed socialist experiments of the 1980s.” Whether he attempts to abolish the regulation, or simply forgo enforcement, fair housing advocates do not believe the federal government will enforce the 2015 rule in the coming years.

Where does that leave Philadelphia? After months of public engagement, a 758-page city-authored report, and a contentious comment period, what could the end result look like without meaningful engagement from HUD?

The Kenney administration signaled that the report would still be used regardless of the larger AFFH rule’s fate. At a December event showcasing the Healthy Rowhouse Project, Anne Fadullon, the city’s director of planning and development, praised the gargantuan report.

“We just wrote one of the nation’s first affirmatively furthering fair housing plans,” said Fadullon. “Regardless of what happens at the national level we have collected all of that data at the local level to get a clear picture of what’s going on here. If it isn’t important at the national level, it’ll still be important at the local level and will still inform a lot of the decisions we make.”

In November and December, the city’s Division of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) and the Philadelphia Housing Authority (PHA) held three hearings that built on the original month of public feedback. The city also provided a series of targeted sessions – on affordable housing provision and maintenance; fair housing enforcement; and access to opportunities – where stakeholder groups could first offer recommendations for fleshing out the AFFH plan’s goals and then reviewing revisions made by the city. A final session was then held so that the assembled interest groups could critique the city’s prioritization of goals.

In a series of interviews with stakeholder groups in December, PlanPhilly found that the concerns critics had about the original draft of the report have been quieted because the city has incorporated many of their recommended changes into the final document.

To take one example, the original report’s goals section suffered criticism for being overly broad. The goals are meant to set priorities for future policy, and softer generalizations were seen as an impediment to accountability. Advocates now say that the updated goals are much more concrete. Instead of generally asserting support for tenant rights, for example, the final plan includes a commitment to increasing the number of poor tenants with legal representation in landlord tenant court.

One of the principal critics of the early draft, Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, thinks that the more detailed goals will help hold the city to account.

“[AFFH’s original] threat was that you could get a progressive federal government to force the city to make changes,” said Urevick-Ackelsberg  “That’s gone now. But the final product, while not perfect, is a really strong statement of principles and values by the city. That still stands. The city added a large amount of data on top of what the regulation required and my hope is that the values that made them do that will be the same values that make them incorporate this plan going forward.”

A public feedback meeting in November brought in a couple dozen members of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC), by far the most impressive display of popular pressure from any one organization during the AFFH process. (The Chinese population is the largest immigrant group in the city.)  Members testified about conditions of affordability and housing quality in Chinatown and the challenges faced by Asian communities in South Philadelphia and the Northeast.

“Since the engagement process we committed a significant amount of time towards organizing the community to participate in the hearings,” said Sarah Yeung, director of planning for PCDC, in a mid-December interview. “I want to express my appreciation for how open and transparent DHCD and PHA have been in the past few weeks. It’s been a good opportunity for us to be part of the process to make sure they don’t plan for us without us.”

The initial draft brought criticism from advocacy groups, including PCDC, who felt that the city’s initial AFFH engagement campaign hadn’t done enough to reach out to Asian and Hispanic neighborhood groups.  Some groups unhappy with the initial process have now formed the Coalition for Fair Housing. After the extended hearing process, all of them expressed a belief that the Kenney administration would follow through on the AFFH’s goals regardless of what happens in Washington D.C. But the housing authority–which exists apart from the city’s housing apparatus—still faces considerable skepticism.

“PHA has been absent from what turns out to be a robust civic engagement process that DHCD has led,” said Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, a citywide Latino advocacy group. “Since we expressed our concerns DHCD, has stepped up to the plate and tried to address issues in that first draft. But PHA is looking at this as compliance not as civic engagement. For me, that’s been disappointing.”

Kelvin Jeremiah, president of the Philadelphia Housing Authority counters that the agency is partnering with Asian and Hispanic advocacy groups to build affordable housing. While the number of units created in these projects is small, federal funding for affordable housing programs has been declining for years.   

“This isn’t a stopgap measure, we aren’t merely complying,” said Jeremiah, who became head of the housing authority in 2012. “The plan calls for us to have aspirational goals with the communities we serve. That’s a good thing. But I have to operate in the constraints I have. There is no new funding under this plan, no new opportunity for us to expand the supply. Instead the pie has shrunk.”

Jeremiah is reticent, for example, to recommend opening up the housing authority’s wait lists for Section 8 vouchers or traditional public housing. (Although he tells PlanPhilly he is still considering that option.) There are already 90,000-100,000 applicants waiting and they would have to be served first.

This is the kind of policy debate that occurs all the time at the local level, where technical questions of zoning, concentrations of Section 8 vouchers, or the racial composition of a housing authority’s waiting list unfold quietly. The AFFH rule threatened to pull HUD into these controversies and offering a rare level of scrutiny to local decisions.

The Obama administration’s rule promised to not only require more robust investigations of barriers to fair housing at the local level, but to actually enforce the 1968 Civil Rights Act by withholding federal resources from those who failed to adopt plans to address fair housing. In the past localities have been required to submit regular plans to HUD, but historically there’s been little evidence the federal bureaucracy seriously scrutinized these documents. A 2015 ProPublica investigation found only two instances since 1972 of HUD withholding funds because of violations of the Fair Housing Act.

If enforced, the AFFH rule sought to overturn that dynamic. If an administration wanted to utilize the rule aggressively, HUD could become an active player in questions about, say, the concentration of Section 8 in already low-income neighborhoods or municipalities. Or HUD could choose to go another direction.

“In any administration, there are things that get emphasis and things that don’t, things that get enforced and things that don’t,” said Debby Goldberg, special project director for the National Fair Housing Alliance. “There are a multitude of ways an administration could dismantle or undermine this rule if it should so choose. The easiest is to just accept every AFFH plan that gets submitted with essentially no review.”

The AFFH process in Philadelphia already disrupted the normal process for planning future policy, pulling the city and the housing authority into more public conversations—and commitments—than might otherwise have occurred.  Regardless of what occurs in Washington, and how that will affect AFFH’s implementation in the rest of the country, Philadelphia’s local government and advocacy groups now have a far more detailed and specific document to upon which to base future policy, and protest. 

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