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Common Hour Recap: Homelessness and Affordable Housing in Connecticut

Last week, the Department of Public Policy and Law, the Office of Community Service and Civic Engagement, the Trinity Homelessness Project, and the Trinity Young Democratic Socialists organized a Common Hour event, “Addressing Homelessness and Affordable Housing in Connecticut.” In the video below, Brooke Williams ’18 of Trinity Young Democratic Socialists and Kyle Fields ’20 of the Trinity Homelessness Project explain their plans for organizing the event.

The guest speaker for the program was Erin Boggs, the Executive Director of Open Communities Alliance, a Connecticut-based civil rights organization advocating for access to opportunity. Erin comes from a family of civil rights activists, including her father who became a civil rights lawyer, and attended public schools in D.C. with her three siblings which she says has a huge influence on her worldview and impacts the work she does today.

This common hour event was almost completely full, and rightfully so; Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country when it comes to housing. Erin said,

In terms of segregation, Connecticut is one of the most segregated state in the country. We are right on par with Chicago and Detroit. This comes out of a number of factors including what we’ve done with zoning laws, where we’re putting subsidized housing, where we’re allowing housing authorities to operate, disinvestment from communities that are disproportionately communities of color, and our entire history of explicitly racist housing policies.

Drawing on CHER director and Professor Jack Dougherty’s work in “On the Line” and Richard Rothstein’s “Color of Law” Erin explained how many of the issues we are seeing today, including the opportunity gap and affordable housing that OCA studies, are a result of a long history of state sponsored segregation.

To give some background from Richard Rothstein’s work, there were two main aspects that interacted: the first was the rise of public housing and the second was federally backed housing developments for white families. Public housing began during the New Deal under the Roosevelt Administration to provide housing primarily to low and middle income families who had lost their homes during the Great Depression, and the Administration included separate public housing for African American families. These patterns of segregated public housing went on through World War II, and in 1949 President Truman proposed a massive expansion of the public housing program, again primarily for white families, to accommodate the shortage of housing largely for veterans. After lengthy political back and forth between Republicans and liberals of the Democratic party regarding integration or segregation, the bill passed and hugely expanded public housing, still segregated.

However, after a few years, the public housing for white families was suddenly vacant and the public housing for African American families was still full and with a waiting list. Erin explained how Jack Dougherty’s work in “On the Line” wanted to understand these changes that had taken place in the Hartford area:

So Jack and others mapped the racial makeup change in the Hartford area from 1950 to 2010. With that shift he’s also done a map of home values over time, you can see the more expensive homes were originally in Hartford, and then with the wealth flight and White flight the high value homes were outside of Hartford.

In the video above, see Jack Dougherty’s mapping of the racial change in Hartford from 1950-2010. The reason for this change was another federal program run by the Federal Housing Administration which “subsidized the movement of white families out of central cities and into single-family homes in the suburbs into houses that were exclusively white. The federal government guaranteed loans to mass production builders to build tens of thousands of homes. The loans were guaranteed on explicit condition that no homes be sold to African Americans and that every home in the development had to have a clause in the deed prohibiting resale to African Americans” (Rothstein).

During the talk, Erin focused on how policies regarding affordable housing and homelessness play a role today in reinforcing this history of state sponsored segregation and the opportunity gap in our state. She explained that one of the ways that policymakers address the issues of homelessness and affordable housing is by defining what homelessness is in order to identify families that qualify for certain resources such as the Housing Choice Voucher. While defining homelessness is critical for impact evaluation, it also means that families who don’t meet the definition can fall through the cracks. Associate Director of Community Learning Megan Faver Hartline said:

We discussed how there’s a difference between HUD’s definition of “literal homelessness” and the realities of many families with kids who double up and couch surf but have no reliable, permanent place to sleep each night.” -Megan Faver Hartline, Associate Director of Community Learning

This narrower definition means that resources such as the Housing Choice Voucher have been invested only in families that are considered “literally homeless” by HUD’s definition. Erin says to address homelessness in the long term, it’s important to ensure we deal with real family homelessness now, including supporting families that are doubled up or couch surfing. This would mean either 1) hard decisions about re-allocating current resources, or 2) a meaningful increase in housing investments.

To further explain housing investments by the state, Erin gave an overview of OCA’s “Out of Balance Report” which measures the opportunity gap in different geographic areas in Connecticut. OCA started by designating neighborhoods’ “opportunity score,” which is indicated by educational indicators such as test scores and educational attainment, economic indicators such as unemployment rate and job diversity, and neighborhood/housing quality indicators such as neighborhood vacancy and homeownership rate (shoutout to the Fall 2018 Liberal Arts Action Lab team looking at Homeownership in Hartford with Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner!). They found that low opportunity areas, shown in the maps below in lightly shaded areas, were highly concentrated in communities of color.

Next, OCA mapped where subsidized housing is located, and the map patterns followed. They found that almost 90% of the subsidized housing developments created by the State of Connecticut are outside of high opportunity areas. In OCA’s research they found that many families living in low opportunity areas do want the choice to move to higher opportunity areas, but the number one deterring factor is the lack of affordable units in those areas.  Erin gave an example in Clay Arsenal in Hartford where over 54% of the units in the neighborhood are subsidized:

It is very hard for a neighborhood to succeed when government policy creates that concentration. It impacts everything from neighborhood infrastructure, to the ability to pay taxes to support municipal services, to schools. The tentacles of that policy decision spread out into so many areas. When people talk about things like the educational achievement gap, I talk about the opportunity gap, because this is so clearly about resources available.” – Erin discusses the concentration of subsidized housing in Clay Arsenal

Looking at the work of Richard Rothstein, Jack Dougherty, and the incredibly relevant recent research by OCA, it is clear that the current policies on homelessness and the locations and concentrations of affordable housing units are reinforcing the history of segregation and disinvestment in communities of color. When Kyle Smith ‘20 of the Trinity Homelessness Project asked Erin, “What should we be doing to try and solve these huge problems?” Erin explained that we got to where we are because a series of overtly and covertly racist policy decisions, and OCA’s policy agenda is driven by the research they have done with families most impacted by these housing decisions and their work in coalition with other groups, such as our community partners at Christian Activities Council. Erin said, “One piece of this is to ensure there are affordable housing choices in higher opportunity areas, and the other piece is to do investments in the areas that are struggling.”

Special thank you to the Department of Public Policy and Law, Joe Barber and the Office of Community Service and Civic Engagement, the Trinity Homelessness Project, and Trinity Young Democratic Socialists.

Open Communities Alliance “is a Connecticut-based civil rights non-profit working with an urban-suburban interracial coalition to advocate for access to opportunity, particularly through promoting balances affordable housing development, including in thriving communities.” To learn more about OCA’s work visit http://www.ctoca.org