Location is Everything – Rental Housing Discrimination as a barrier to Economic Mobility

VPLC uses education, litigation and policy advocacy to oppose and reform housing policies and practices that preserve or increase patterns of residential segregation and diminish opportunity for historically disadvantaged populations. In particular, we look at racial disparities and discrimination in our current work around the tenant-screening methods of subsidized and other low-cost housing providers, who operate much of the most affordable and attainable housing in communities of higher opportunity. How does racial discrimination affect those who are struggling to get out of poverty? Location is everything when it comes to economic mobility.

Some of the more sophisticated modern sociological research has shown that the characteristics of the community in which a person grows up have a predominant influence on that person’s educational, economic, and health outcomes.  Or, as recent former HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan put it, “the single biggest predictor of children’s life chances, even their lifespan, is the ZIP Code they grow up in.”  This speaks to great disparities in the distribution of opportunity across U.S. communities, and the unfortunate reality that while some children enjoy safe and healthy neighborhoods with quality schools, adult role models, and good employment prospects, many other children endure dangerous environments with substandard housing, crumbling infrastructure, under-resourced schools, crime, toxic hazards, and a dearth of living wage jobs.  And a further unfortunate reality is that race and opportunity are closely intertwined—with the whitest communities typically offering the greatest opportunity to its children, while neighborhoods of color lag behind.

For example, compare these two maps.

Map comparison of areas of opportunity to racial population density in Richmond

The first, prepared by Brian Koziol of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) shows opportunity rates for the Richmond area (opportunity means having “high performing schools, meaningful employment, viable transportation, quality childcare, responsive health care, and other institutions that grant individuals and families access to opportunity.”).  The second map is a snip of the Racial Dot Map by Justin Cable of the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, which maps each person counted in the 2010 U.S. Census by race—with the blue dots representing whites, the green dots representing African-Americans, and the yellow dots representing Latinos.  As is visible to the naked eye, the lowest opportunity areas correspond with the areas most heavily-populated by people of color in the Richmond region.  And this is a pattern not only in Richmond, but in many parts of Virginia and indeed across the country.

Isolating people of color into communities of disadvantage tends to reproduce poverty across generations.  Thus, an essential element of a strategic poverty-reduction strategy is to promote inclusive, heterogeneous communities that spread opportunity across entire regions.  Inclusion and the diffusion of opportunity fosters the life chances of all with the talent and will to succeed—not just those fortunate enough to be born in the redder-shaded areas, while others struggle to break cycles of generational poverty.

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