Planning With An Equity Lens: Making Cities More Fair

Passage of the Fair Housing Act half a century ago was an “incredibly important milestone in our nation’s history, making housing discrimination on the basis of race and other classes illegal,” according to Julie Nelson, director of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE).

“But the reality is that passing laws alone is not enough,” lamented Nelson, former head of the Seattle Office for Civil Rights, which enforces anti-discrimination laws in housing, employment, public accommodations, contracting and other areas in the Seattle area.

To come up with fairer uses of public resources, many cities and counties around the country, are now using a so-called “equity lens” to review existing policies and craft new ones. Nelson explains, they’re doing this by reviewing how public dollars are spent and reaching out to community groups in poor areas, working with partners in health care, parks and recreation, economic development, transportation, education and social services to make disadvantaged neighborhoods safer, more resilient, affordable and sustainable.

Many cities and counties are using an equity lens to review existing policies.

“Just because we no longer have explicit rules about exclusion doesn’t mean bias doesn’t remain,” she said. “We still have work to do.” In fact, according to a recent study in the journal “Sociological Science,” the United States has become more segregated, both economically and racially, in recent decades.

A separate report from Stanford and Cornell universities reported that in 1970, 15 percent of families in the country lived in neighborhoods where residents were either quite rich or quite poor. Four decades later, that figure had more than doubled, with a third of households living in economically segregated communities.

Another study, this one from the National Bureau of Economic Research, said economic inequality in the United States has returned to levels not seen for more than 90 years. And in part because of continued “white flight,” U.S. schools, the Sociological Science study noted, are becoming more segregated at the same time the country’s population is becoming more diverse.

“The truth is you can look at the data and see there are biases still playing out. The 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act is worth celebrating as a major step forward, but it hasn’t been enough.”

GARE is a membership network of cities and counties working to improve racial equity.

Nelson said GARE is a relatively new organization, only having been around for about four years. “Cities and counties and states across the United States have taken on the charge of advancing racial equity with the recognition, from a historical perspective, that government played a primary role in creating pervasive racial inequities that aren’t natural or random. They exist because they were intentionally created over the majority of our country’s history.

“If you look at the founding of this country and who could be a citizen, who could vote, who could own property and who was property, all those explicit ways in which government created inequities, you see we have a pretty deep history that we are trying to overcome.”

Because having laws and regulations prohibiting discrimination is only a start, she said government agencies in many places have accepted the responsibility of “aligning policy and practice, which is more than just saying we believe in equality and justice.”

GARE is a membership network of cities and counties working to improve racial equity by bringing people together to share ideas and best practices “to interrupt the status quo.”

“We figured we are stronger working together. We started with a handful of jurisdictions after I left the city of Seattle to work with John Powell, who heads the Haas Diversity Research Center at the University of California at Berkeley. Now we have more than 100 jurisdictions as members, so we’ve seen good growth in a short amount of time,” she said.

Though dealing with service gaps between rich and poor and white and minority communities has been on the agenda of government agencies for decades, Nelson said the demand for equity is being pushed more aggressively now. “I see it as a trajectory in looking at how change has happened, but we’ve realized some of our successes haven’t been able to achieve the outcomes that we’d wanted. We have to be laser-focused on outcomes.

“It’s no longer a matter of fighting ill intent in most cases. We aren’t seeing individual acts of bigotry that were exclusive and common in the past. We’re now thinking a lot, for example, about how gentrification has played out in cities and how people of color are bearing the brunt of economic forces like housing displacement.

“That means looking at policies and practices that entail everything from land-use and zoning decisions to asking what are the economic strategies that will allow affordable housing to be developed? And what are the strategies that prevent or mitigate displacement in the first place?”

Nelson said using an equity lens to examine government policy deals with more than housing. She said Seattle, her former employer, has an equitable development strategy that came out of its comprehensive planning process. It recognized that many of the city’s neighborhoods remain as segregated now as they were when the Fair Housing Act was enacted, in part because of “redlining,” the practice of denying or limiting financial services by banks and other institutions to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness.

And as Seattle’s inner core was being revitalized in recent years, people of color were being displaced, she said. “But the thing that is fascinating is that while housing is important, it’s only one part. It needs to be part of a comprehensive strategy. So the work that Seattle is currently implementing has three prongs that include housing, economic development and maintaining cultural institutions. Losing any one of those cornerstones can cause fragility in a neighborhood.”

Down the coast in Portland, she cited a program that is focused on gentrification and displacement of people of color that occurred in previous decades. The city now has a housing program that gives preference to people who can show that they or their family once lived in a now-gentrified neighborhood, but were forced out by rising rents.

“GARE has just completed its first round of award grants from its innovation and implementation fund to help government agencies tackle institutional and structural barriers that perpetuate inequities. Clearly there remains a lot to do.”

In Baltimore, Stephanie Smith, the city’s assistant director in the planning department, said her city has a long history of segregation that left it with a housing pattern of mainly black neighborhoods rimming white areas in the middle. She said this legacy predates 1910, but that was the year when Baltimore enacted a race-based housing ordinance that was the first of its kind in the country.

“So a lot of our segregation was in fact by design and planned to be that way. As an agency, we realized that we inherited that legacy and in some instances, we were a part of upholding that status quo. Now, in the modern era, we want to figure how we can ‘un-plan’ the unfairness of the system.”

Smith said her department has an “equity-in-planning committee” that was created by staff members on their own accord to assess fairness in the area of sustainability and other work it oversees.

The committee came up with an action plan using a fourpart equity lens provided by the Urban Sustainability Directors Network that looks at structural, procedural, trans-generational and distributional equity. The group was pleased to learn, Smith said, that it had a great deal of flexibility and discretion in how it conveys information to the public, which has led to changes to making those procedures more inclusive.

“We can give communities that have suffered from economic disinvestment, have limited mobility and social capital — institutions that organize people — more support from planners so they can participate in a more robust way,” Smith said.

She said the trans-generational part of the equation means her department will consider how its decisions will affect people in the future. “In very few instances are children represented at the decision-making table. This change is about not placing undue burdens on future generations.”

The last, distributional pillar means looking at how resources and opportunities are accessible to people based on where they live, their race, age, income and other factors. When the planning department did a study last year to determine how funds were spent over the past five years, it learned that twice as much of $670 million in Baltimore’s budgeted capital projects went to predominantly white neighborhoods compared to mostly minority parts of the city.

Smith said the equity lens is needed to make Baltimore safer, healthier and more prosperous for all of its residents, especially in those areas that have been neglected.

“We do an equity analysis of the capital budget to see if our resources are going to communities that need them the most. That gives us a baseline from which to improve, but ultimately we’re going to have to have a more rigorous approach to the overall city budget so we can truly understand why we are deciding to put investments in certain locations over others,” she said. “That will require a paradigm shift, but it’s certainly one that’s needed.”

Prosper Portland, the Rose City’s economic and urban development agency, focuses on building an equitable economy by carrying out a comprehensive range of economic development programs that support small business, improve access to workforce training, and create jobs for Portland residents.

“We work with partners to drive public attention and resources to different areas of the city, which helps Portland realize capital projects — parks, streetscape improvements, community centers — that would not happen on their own, making it a better place to live for all Portlanders,” according to the agency’s website.

Portland, like many other American cities, has a history of redlining, which adversely affected predominantly African American neighborhoods in the north and northeast parts of the city, where many blacks moved when they came to Portland to work in the Kaiser shipyards during the Second World War. Those neighborhoods, she said, are now being gentrified.

Lisa Abuaf, a development manager with Prosper Portland, said her agency’s Neighborhood Prosperity Initiative has focused, in part, on an area called Outer East Portland, which is racially and economically diverse and has a history of neglect. It has a robust business association, however, and her agency has funded a district manager to be a resource for the neighborhood’s workforce and small-business development needs.

“We’ve made a commitment to foster social and racial equity, particularly given our background as an urban renewal agency and the negative impact that we’ve had in communities, both overtly and inadvertently.

“We have a history of demolishing neighborhoods with the intention of building new neighborhoods. But we didn’t think much about who those communities would serve and they ended up predominantly serving middle class and upper middle class white populations.

“The focus we have today is that as we are building places for new communities, those communities need to be socially, racially and economically diverse.”

Dallas, the ninth largest city in the country, is also heavily segregated, with many of the poorest residents living in southern neighborhoods, said Theresa O’Donnell, head of the city’s resilience office, which was funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation 100 Resilient Cities Initiative.

“We’re in the South and Dallas has had a legacy of not only horrible race lines and rules, such as formal segregation with redlining of mortgages, but also Jim Crow laws,” she said. “Dallas remains highly segregated along mostly economic lines, but economics is a proxy for race and ethnicity here.”

She said urban renewal projects in the past also contributed to segregation, with freeways cutting through often poor and minority neighborhoods, creating both physical and psychological barriers.

“Planners thought that was a helpful way to remove blight, but it wasn’t,” she said. “They weren’t thinking of the social consequences. It often dispossessed people of their properties and moved them into low-income housing projects.”

Peer Chacko, Dallas planning and urban design director, said T.C. Broadnax, the new city manager hired in 2017, is a strong proponent of planning with an equity lens.

“He’s made equity one of the four pillars of his new administration,” Chacko said. “But we’re still in the process of operationalizing it to figure out how it affects everything that we do.”

As part of its resiliency plan, he said the city is establishing a new, comprehensive housing policy that stresses equity while increasing the overall supply of housing, especially affordable housing. “Simultaneously, work is also being done on a comprehensive transportation plan with an equity focus and improving service in disadvantaged parts of Dallas.”

O’Donnell said the economy of the city — which covers 340 square miles with a population of 1.3 million — is booming, and unemployment this spring was pegged at a low 3.7 percent.

But that prosperity isn’t shared, with 45 percent of the city’s population south of Interstate 30, producing only 15 percent of the city’s tax base. Moreover, she said 300,000 of its residents are classified as “working poor, with a sizable population locked into low-wage, temporary and seasonal jobs. So in these families, mom and dad can work two or three jobs and still not get above the poverty level.”

O’Donnell said the city is reviewing some of its major systems, such as public transportation, “which should help people escape the trap of poverty, but actually are not very responsive to them.

“Dallas is a post-war suburban sprawl kind of city that requires most families to have at least two cars. If our public transit system worked more efficiently, perhaps some of these low-income families could escape the burden of having two vehicles because they’d be able to get around more easily and quickly. That would be an economic boon for them.”

Chacko said if the city is able to combine land use, transportation, housing and economic development efforts together in an equitable manner, “it could be pretty transformational.”

“A big part of what we are trying to do is be strategic in geographies where we can make a difference in a reasonable amount of time so we don’t spread ourselves too thin.

“But we are also doing it in a typical political environment where there are lots of competing values and all the challenges that go with that,” he warned.

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.

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