Housing Discrimination

Housing segregation describes the voluntary or involuntary separation of areas by race, resulting in neighborhoods where most, if not all, of the residents belong to one race. In the past, residents of certain neighborhoods put together contracts to keep other groups out, called restrictive covenants. Restrictive covenants were prohibited in the United States Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer. In addition to this decision, Title VIII (8) of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in relation to selling, renting, and financing housing. This includes discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. 

Despite the illegality of restrictive covenants, many Americans live in segregated neighborhoods. Based on the 2010 Census information, the ten most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States, from greatest segregation to least, are: Milwaukee, New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. This is not to say that segregation persists to the degree that it did in the past. On the contrary, segregation of African-American communities has reached the lowest point in more than a century. However, this has not led to a similar decline in income and social inequality. In 2004, 25.6 percent of African Americans lived in poverty. The same study found Hispanic Americans at 22.0 percent, Asian Americans at 11.8 percent, and White Americans at 8.8 percent.

Fair Housing Market

One of the most important aspects to consider when discussing housing discrimination is the cost of housing across the country in relation to the average income of different groups and earning power across demographics. The wage gap between races and sexes has been present since the United States was a country, but the problem has yet to resolve itself, in spite of legislation that prohibits discrimination. The correlation between more expensive housing and better schools has been proven, but the interrelatedness of income, housing, education and the cycle of poverty must be considered piece by piece.

In the United States, higher education and higher income have long been associated with each other. In a recent report from the Brookings Institute, the connection between income and education was fleshed out. The report begins by stressing the importance of education in human welfare and gives a background on the importance of high-quality schools to socioeconomic status. The study presented four conclusions: low-income students, on average, score nineteen (19) percentage points lower on state exams than middle/high-income students; metropolitan areas in the Northeast with greater economic segregation have the greatest test-score gaps between socioeconomic levels; housing costs near high-scoring public schools in the 100 largest metropolitan areas are 2.4 times more expensive than housing near low-scoring public schools; and housing cost gaps in large metropolitan areas with the least restrictive zoning are forty (40) to sixty-three (63) percentage points lower than similar areas with exclusionary zoning. 

Families interested in living in areas served by high-scoring schools must have a greater income. This disadvantages single-parent households, which are overwhelmingly headed by single mothers. According to the Census Bureau, there were 12.9 million single-parent families in 2006. Of these families, 10.4 percent were single-mother families and 2.5 million were single-father families. For single-mother households, the gender wage gap weighs heavily on the household income. Based on numbers for the earning power of men versus women, the household income for a single-mother household would, on average, be 86 cents for every dollar that a single-father household would garner. Thus, it would be more difficult for a single-mother household to pay the $11,000 average difference needed to move into a neighborhood served by a high-scoring school in one of the 100 largest metropolitan areas. 

An additional problem is that it is less likely for the average student from a low-scoring public school to gain the same education as the average student from a high-scoring public school. Compounding the gender wage gap is the racial wage gap. Although less dramatic than the gender wage gap, there were fewer Asian hourly-paid workers, approximately three (3) percent, making minimum wage or less, compared to five (5) percent of White hourly-paid workers and six (6) percent of Black hourly-paid workers. Put into perspective, in New York, where most counties are majority non-Hispanic White, a minimum wage worker must work 136 hours to afford a two-bedroom unit. In states like Mississippi, where there are a greater number of majority non-Hispanic Black counties, the hours of minimum wage work needed to afford a two-bedroom unit is less. However, this lower cost also means that the schools are, on average, lower scoring than schools in majority non-Hispanic White counties. Therefore, housing segregation, on average, results in majority-minority communities having lower housing costs and producing worse schools, giving the children of these families less opportunity in the future.

Section 8 Housing

Section 8 housing refers to section 8 of the Housing Act of 1937. This section allows the federal government to pay landlords so that the landlords will reserve some or all of the units in their building for low-income tenants. There are two types of programs under this section, tenant-based and project-based. Through the tenant-based Housing Choice Voucher Program, low-income families receive rental assistance in the form of vouchers that provide rental subsidies for housing units that meet the government’s definition of standard-quality. In this program, the family is responsible for paying the highest of these different values: thirty (30) percent of monthly adjusted income, ten (10) percent of monthly income, the welfare rent, or the public housing agency’s minimum rent. The family also does not have to pay more than forty (40) percent of their adjusted monthly income for rent. The Project-Based Voucher Program applies to rental assistance given to eligible families living in specific housing developments or “projects.” This program works through public housing agencies, as opposed to working directly with tenants and landlords. These housing programs are all under the authority of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD gathers demographic information about tenants receiving assistance, and the most recent published statistics reflect housing statistics from March 1, 2011-June 30, 2012. According to this data, of those households receiving and type of voucher-funded assistance, fifty (50) percent have a White head of household. For the same group of people, forty-five (45) percent have a Black head of household. Asians make up two (2) percent of the group, while Native American and Alaska Natives comprise only one (1) percent. Because the statistics are divided to represent Latinos as an ethnic group, as opposed to a race like other groups, their statistics fall within the other categories. Of the entire group, fifteen (15) percent are Hispanic or Latino. 

These numbers reflect the demographics of all persons receiving any voucher-funded rental assistance through Section 8, but when considered alongside the demographics of the nation as a whole, certain groups are disproportionately represented among the numbers above. According to data from the US Census Bureau, in 2011, White people were 78.1 percent of the entire population. For the same time period, Black people were 13.1 percent, Asian people were 5.0 percent, and Native American and Alaska Native people were 1.2 percent. Like HUD, the Census Bureau calculates Latino and Hispanic people as an ethnic group as opposed to a racial category. In 2011, Latino people were 16.7 percent of the US population. Thus, for representation in Section 8 housing, the groups whose national percentages are most closely reflected are Latinos and Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The discrepancies for White and Black people are difficult to calculate based on the cross-section of Latino ethnicity with the two racial groups. However, given the history of Black and White Americans in the United States, their disproportionate representation in Section 8 housing mirrors their disproportionate representation in prisons and poor school systems, illustrating the continued problems facing Black Americans.

Effects of Concentrated Poverty

While housing segregation may seem harmless in some regards, there are tangible effects of segregated housing. Because of the wealth gap in the United States, segregated housing means that those who live in low income neighborhoods are more likely to attend public schools with fewer resources. These schools often fail to perform at the same level as other public schools in wealthier neighborhoods. In metropolitan areas, such as those around New York City, Seattle and Washington, DC, the income gap is greatest. In these areas, homes near high-scoring public schools cost 2.4 times as much as those near low-scoring public schools. Additionally, children from high-poverty are more likely to reach basic levels in reading and math. For reading, 25 percent of fourth graders in high-poverty areas are at a basic level, whereas 67 percent of suburban fourth graders are at a basic reading level. For math, 33 percent of fourth graders in high-poverty areas are at a basic math level, whereas 67 percent of fourth graders in suburban areas are.

In addition to the obstacles caused by low income on its own, concentrated poverty causes additional lasting problems. Concentrated poverty describes the isolation of poor populations within poor communities where local conditions are often inadequate. These communities are often plagued with high crime rates, failing schools, and substandard housing. Instead of only describing the income of the people living in the areas, the term concentrated poverty also describes the lack of resources available to people in these communities. In neighborhoods plagued with concentrated poverty, many families must devote at least half of their income to paying for their housing. By dedicating so much to their housing costs, these families must often sacrifice in other areas, including food and healthcare. Another consequence is the prevalence of food deserts, which makes it more difficult for families living in concentrated poverty to find healthy and affordable food options. Food deserts are relatively large areas where grocery stores are either rare or non-existent. In addition to the prevalence of food deserts, living in concentrated poverty often leads to both physical and psychological health strain.