What we mean when we talk about housing equity

The concept of housing equity rests on the principle that everyone — no matter who they are or where they come from — should have access to a safe, decent and affordable home. But, simply put, access to housing is not an equal playing field.

In the U.S., historical race and class discrimination have produced deep gaps in generational wealth and a continuing pattern of segregated neighborhoods, as well as an enduring lack of access to credit and opportunities for affordable housing. All of this creates a significant lack of equity in housing and neighborhood choices today with Black people and other communities of color facing greater housing unaffordability and insecurity.

Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies’ 2021 State of the Nation’s Housing report highlighted the homeownership gap, with the percentages of U.S. homeowners by race/ ethnicity as follows:

Habitat’s vision is a world where everyone has a decent place to live, and that means that creating housing equity is central to fulfilling our mission. To make that world

a reality, we work to break down barriers, serve people of all backgrounds and create lasting change. Advocating for justice plays a tremendous role in addressing the critical issues that will help make housing more equitable now and in the future.

What does housing supply have to do with it?

Housing supply isn’t keeping pace with population growth. Construction of entry-level, single-family homes has fallen from 418,000 units a year in the late 1970s to just 65,000 in 2020. The National Association of Realtors estimates that we now have a total shortage of 2.1 million homes for sale, with lower-priced homes composing the bulk of this need.

Investing in the production and preservation of affordable housing and creating new tools that can help families achieve housing stability are critical to closing homeownership gaps for people of color and achieving affordability and access for all.

Steps to remedy the lack of affordable housing inventory:

  • Produce a greater number of affordable homes. Advocate to strengthen, expand and develop successful local, state and federal programs that fund and stimulate new development and address the operational costs of creating new, affordable housing through efforts like housing trust funds.
  • Increase the affordability of our existing housing stock. Advocate for local, state and federal programs like vouchers for renting and homebuying.
  • Preserve affordable homes. Advocate to create and increase funding to preserve and rehabilitate homes that have deteriorated or are unmaintained.

Why does credit matter?

Access to credit allows individuals to pursue opportunities that can improve their quality of life, including purchasing a home. Yet credit is difficult, if not impossible, for many households to access.

Communities of color face a long history of systemic, government-approved exclusion from lending. They’re also more likely to be targets of predatory credit like payday lending. As many as 60 million Americans have difficulty qualifying for credit cards and other loans, according to a 2019 report from the New York Federal Reserve, but this ability to qualify doesn’t affect everyone equally. A 2017 Federal Bureau of Consumer Protection’s analysis of nationwide lender data found that Black, Hispanic and Asian applicants were more likely to be denied all analyzed loans — including mortgages.

The resulting reality is that households of color have less wealth and less generational wealth, which is often the money that first-time homebuyers use for a down payment.

Steps to remedy the lack of access to credit:

  • Create more credit access. Advocate to increase and broaden access to safe and sound credit for underserved populations and communities.
  • Promote policies that protect against loan discrimination. Advocate for housing and consumer lending policies that protect consumers from discriminatory practices.
  • Stop high-cost, predatory lending. Advocate for access to safe and affordable alternatives to short-term loans that prey on desperate consumers.
  • Expand down payment assistance. Advocate for low-wealth homebuyers to have better access to affordable mortgages.
  • Make credit monitoring more inclusive. Advocate for the inclusion of alternative information in credit scoring and mortgage underwriting.
  • Protect against default and foreclosure. Advocate to increase resources for housing counseling and affordable loan restructuring to help lower-income homeowners who face default or foreclosure.

What roles do land use and zoning play?

How we use land matters, so does what kind of building is allowed and where. Oftentimes zoning policies affect housing equity. Land that’s zoned for single- family homes, for example, excludes other options that are generally lower-price, such as townhomes. And communities without any place for apartments significantly restrict opportunities for lower-income households.

Steps to ensure that land use and zoning foster equity:

  • Make zoning more inclusive. Advocate for the creation of incentives or requirements that encourage lower minimum home- and lot-size requirements, permit duplexes and triplexes, and allow apartments in more locations.
  • Support anti-discrimination policies and regulations. Advocate to strengthen fair housing enforcement in land use and development so that proposed affordable housing developments aren’t unfairly restricted or denied based on the demographics of future residents.
  • Build and preserve affordable homes in communities of opportunity. Advocate to incentivize mixed-income housing developments and make public land in well-resourced neighborhoods available at low cost for intentionally affordable homes.

What effect do neighborhoods have on equity?

Where we live directly impacts our health and our ability to achieve our full potential. It connects us to — or can separate us from — good jobs, schools, services and community assets that enable residents to succeed. Yet, there are very few affordable housing units available in environmentally healthy areas that have access to economic and social opportunities and infrastructure, like good public transportation.

A 2014 survey conducted by the MacArthur Foundation found that a majority of Americans believed that it was challenging to find affordable quality housing in their communities — and that was before recession, pandemic and other factors only deepened the crises in our communities. Urgent investment in distressed, lower opportunity communities is urgently needed. But that in and of itself won’t be enough. We also must increase housing opportunities in thriving communities so that families can achieve better outcomes in health, wealth and safety.

Steps to ensure equitable access to communities of opportunity:

  • Include all residents in decision-making. Advocate for local processes that ensure residents, including historically unrepresented communities and renters, have a meaningful voice in community development and planning decisions.
  • Expand affordable homeownership opportunities and ensure current residents can remain. Advocate to make tax credits available for the rehabilitation of distressed homes in communities with low home values, helping residents improve their neighborhoods and benefit as changes take hold.
  • Improve access to high-opportunity neighborhoods for families with vouchers. Advocate for voucher mobility programs, including landlord outreach and mediation, tenant counseling and moving-cost assistance. Currently, landlord resistance, high deposit requirements and unaffordable moving expenses often restrict families from using vouchers outside of high-poverty, segregated areas.

Habitat advocacy successes

Across the country, Habitat affiliates are actively engaged in advocating for housing equity in their local communities and at the state level through the Cost of Home campaign. Here are a few highlights:

  • Habitat Portland/Metro East helped pass zoning changes in the city, allowing for triplexes and quadruplexes where previously only single-family homes were allowed. This policy change will play a key role in helping to desegregate the city.
  • Throughout 2020, Habitat New York City and Westchester County mobilized coalition partners and supporters to advocate for the cancellation of the city’s annual tax lien sale, which disproportionately has impacted and destabilized low-income communities and communities of color. Their efforts proved successful — the state postponed the tax lien sale, and in 2021 they helped shape a city policy that charts a course to a future without predatory tax lien sales, and towards a more equitable municipal debt collection system protecting more than 5,000 homeowners.
  • Habitat Metro Maryland helped pass statewide legislation to prevent source-of-income discrimination. This type of discrimination is often seen when landlords will not rent to families who hold affordable housing vouchers. Additionally, at the local level, Habitat Metro Maryland successfully advocated for a racial equity and social just policy that require that county leaders and agencies work to ensure that impacts on racial equity are considered in all policy decisions, including land use policy changes.
  • In southeastern Florida, Habitat Broward County successfully advocated that the County Commission create a task force to identify systemic and racial inequities and develop a plan to eliminate racism and create greater equity across the county.

Will you join us?

Equity and inclusion are the hallmarks of any thriving community. We must come together to create housing equity and strengthen all communities.

One way you can join us is through Habitat’s U.S. advocacy campaign, Cost of Home, which is designed to find solutions and create policies that will help families more easily and successfully face housing challenges, including the lack of equity in housing.

When we work together to create greater equity in housing, we have the power to influence and promote greater equity in other areas of life, addressing the legacy of discrimination against people of color, especially Black Americans, and helping communities prosper and families thrive.

Visit habitat.org/costofhome to learn more and join us in our advocacy efforts.

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