Remarks from Penn US Housing Policy: The Future of What Works Symposium

On Friday, September 15, I was invited to chair a panel on housing preservation at the Penn US Housing Policy Symposium. It was an intense and informative day, with economists, planners, sociologists, and policymakers presenting new research on existing housing policy.  The papers will eventually appear in a special issue of Housing Policy Debate.  Below are my remarks to the group, about housing preservation as social justice.

"Housing Preservation as Social Justice"


Thank you and good afternoon. I am excited to chair this panel on housing preservation, as it receives less attention in both housing research and policy agendas that prioritize production.  As a public housing researcher, I perhaps valorize the quest to preserve multiple amounts and types of affordable housing.  Public housing, in particular acts, as Amy L. Howard says, as “more than shelter,” and I believe the social and political use of housing is just as valuable a metric for preservation as is its utilitarian value of accommodation. My work in Atlanta shows that public housing tenant associations created a vast number of political opportunities for low income black women to mobilize and control resources in the city. However, in the struggle for affordable housing preservation, these tenant associations were not preserved, and a vital component of both neighborhood stability and community development was excised, even as the number of replacement units satisfied the market demand.   


Thus, I frame this session on two types of preservation from a justice and equity perspective: That is, how are the burdens and benefits of affordable housing and historic preservation distributed among the population?  Further, how can these two forms of preservation advance more equitable outcomes for marginalized populations? And, what to do when these two aspects – affordable housing preservation and the preservation of historical spaces in the city – are in tension with one another?


Racial and Economic Justice


According to the National Housing Preservation Database, in 2016 there were 5.5M units of subsidized affordable housing in the United States. Yet by 2021- just over three years from now – 1/5, or 1.1 M units are at risk of loss due to expiring housing subsidies. The loss of this affordable housing, particularly if replaced by market-rate housing, is a loss for the economic, racial, and social diversity of our neighborhoods.  As Lens and Reina state in their 2016 article, Section 8 subsidies (the second most used form of affordable housing subsidies) are expiring in neighborhoods with increasing opportunity for social mobility for its residents.  As Reina and Begley note, these opt-outs are more likely in high opportunity/higher priced areas than in neighborhoods with lower price appreciation. The disproportionate burden of housing subsidy expiration on the low-income, nonwhite, single-parent household, vis-à-vis its exclusion from high opportunity areas, is thus a racially, economically, and socially unjust outcome that must be accounted for by more targeted preservation tactics and policies.  Drs. Kate Howell, Elizabeth Mueller, and Barbara Brown Wilson’s paper on local context and planning in Washington, Chicago, and Austin provide a useful framework for this sort of targeted preservation. 


Stephanie Ryberg-Webster and panelist’s Kelly Kinahan’s work on the Federal Historic Rehabilitation Tax Credit program in legacy cities shows using this instrument preserves historical spaces, increases local property values, and preserves the quantity of affordable housing units in the neighborhood.  Continuing in this line of inquiry, Dr. Kinahan’s paper will explore the neighborhood effects of this economic development tool – that is, the effects of the tax credit program on a neighborhood’s racial, socioeconomic, and housing market characteristics.  This paper is useful for understanding the tensions (or lack thereof) between historical and affordable housing preservation on neighborhood composition and outcomes.    


Environmental Justice

Yet affordable housing preservation is not just threatened by strong, profit-maximizing, real estate interests, declining real wages and job stability, and national apathy toward the plight of the poor and working-class, but by a much more intense and urgent threat: climate change.  Harris County and Miami-Dade County – two areas currently under water from two category five hurricanes that occurred within the last two weeks – are both among the top 10 counties in the country with the most affordable housing subsidies, totaling over 100,000 units.  Based on the actions of the New Orleans and Galveston Housing Authorities following Hurricanes Katrina and Ike, the loss of affordable housing due to natural disasters will not necessarily ensure a 1-1 replacement during recovery and rebuilding efforts.  The disproportionate impact of natural disasters on and disparate responses to affordable housing dwellers suggests that class inequality is maintained and reinforced through the changing climate. Thus, affordable housing policy must also shift to preserve adaptable and resilient housing units. 


With these just aims and outcomes in mind, I turn it over to our next panel, “Two Kinds of Preservation”