Erin Boggs, Founder and Executive Director of Open Communities Alliance
Erin Boggs, Founder and Executive Director of Open Communities Alliance

In all the furor over Russian election meddling, travel bans, free trade agreements, and concern about the place of the United States in the international order, the Department of Housing and Urban Development hasn’t received much media attention. But under the leadership of Dr. Ben Carson, HUD is causing alarms to sound for fair-housing advocates in Connecticut.

At the center of their concerns is a regulation created during President Obama’s administration, the Small Area Fair Market Rent regulation.  HUD has decided to suspend implementation of the rule, a decision which will impact more than 2 million low-income American households which rely on housing choice vouchers from the federal government.

The Mirror spoke with Erin Boggs, the founder and executive director of Open Communities Alliance, and Sasha Samberg-Champion, a lawyer with the Relman, Dane and Colfax law firm in Washington, D.C. They are representing two clients in Connecticut in an attempt to force HUD to implement the Small Area Fair Market Rent regulation as planned. In this Sunday conversation, Boggs and Samberg-Champion explain the rule and its potential effects on low-income families in the state.

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Erin, tell us a little bit about Open Communities Alliance and your work there. 

Erin: Sure. Open Communities Alliance was started really in response to the fact that Connecticut is one of the most segregated states in the country — segregated by race, ethnicity and income. That was producing all kinds of really exceptional gaps in outcomes for families who fell into these different categories.

The basis for these disparities had nothing to do with the individuals themselves, but rather was the result of decades of systemic segregation that was oftentimes government sponsored. Because the government played such a central role in creating what was functionally opportunity isolation for disenfranchised groups,  the government could play a role in reversing that.

What are your primary tools to reverse those trends at the government level?

Erin: The first thing we want to do is make sure that people understand what’s going on. We recently hosted a tour with historian and author Richard Rothstein through Connecticut talking about his book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of how our Government Segregated America, which reveals in an amazing and detailed way the steps that were taken at the municipal, state and federal level all around the country to very intentionally generate segregation.

[We try] explaining that history to people, helping them understand that it really is forgotten by many people. So one tool is outreach and education. Another is understanding the data, understanding what our housing patterns are now, how government policies contribute to those and how, then, with policy recommendations we can turn those around and actually use our housing resources to create access to opportunity. And lastly we have the option of litigation when we need it.

Is that where law firms like yours, Sasha, come into this process when litigation becomes the next step? Or are there other steps that you and your firm take outside of litigation as well to pursue these goals?

Sasha Samberg-Champion, Counsel at Relman, Dane and Colfax Sasha Samberg-Champion

Sasha: We have a few other things that we do, but I think our primary role in this process is for people like Erin to be able to come to us and say ‘We have an issue that does need to be litigated,’ and we do that all over the country. Or our allies in the fair housing movement come to us and say, ‘We’re seeing this problem and we’re at an impasse and this is the step we need to take now.’

Do you specialize in litigation at the state level or the federal level?

Sasha: We tend to sue in federal court, but all over the country. Just to give you another example of one that we recently did in Connecticut actually, we recently had a lawsuit against an insurance company that refused to insure any property owners that rented to voucher holders.

That’s an example of where we were brought in to remedy a really discriminatory practice where the insurance company was actually making it impossible for the landlords to fairly rent to people. We do that all over the country, including in Connecticut, when we’re called upon.

In the example that you gave, what would be the impact of that on the individual renter? How would that impact their ability to find rental space?

Sasha: If an insurance company won’t offer property insurance to landlords, then landlords won’t rent to voucher holders. And the result is that voucher holders get greatly constricted options in terms of rentals. They will only be able to rent in a much lower number of places and you can see the obvious relationship between that and this suit.

There’s all kinds of practices that make it such that voucher holders options are really limited and that’s part of why they end up in these segregated communities.

That’s a great segue into the current lawsuit. Can you talk about the current lawsuit, Erin, and what you hope to accomplish?

Erin: I think one place to start is just looking at how segregated families using tenant based Section 8 are in the state. And we’ve run some numbers. We’ve crunched the data on this and we know that about 86 percent of voucher holders are living outside the areas of the state that have the highest performing schools. So that’s one way to think about it.

Another way to think about it is about 48 percent, or almost half, of voucher holders are living in only 2 percent of the land area of the state. It’s a really stunning number, and the avenues of voucher holders to areas that have greater access to opportunity are blocked.

One of the major ways in which they are blocked is the system through which the Department of Housing and Urban Development sets the maximum rents allowable within the program. What they’ve done is created something of an average for a region that has the end result of inflating rents in areas that tend to be more urban and never allowing the rents to be high enough to reach suburban areas, or in our case, areas that have greater access to opportunity.

Where it starts is just a flawed formula for calculating the rents, and that is the major contributor to why we have such a segregated voucher program.

The Obama administration recognized this and they went through a long period of research and comment and produced a regulation that said now we have to do this differently. That regulation began with implementing this program in 24 regions around the country. The new system for the formula would be based on zip codes so that it would be a lot more accurate and sort of track much better the real market rates for rental housing in any given zip code.

That was supposed to go into effect here in Connecticut in the Hartford region, and the Hartford region under this regulation is very broadly defined, in January of 2018. But in August the Trump administration under Ben Carson at the Department of Housing and Urban Development summarily suspended the implementation of this regulation and that has caused major problems for families who wanted to make these kinds of moves and for our work here in this state.

Sasha: So we have filed a complaint against Ben Carson and against HUD which, what we’re saying is that they did not follow the process that you have to follow if you want to take the extraordinary step of not going forward with a properly promulgated regulation. Under the law, once a regulation is promulgated, it is the law just like a statute would be for example. An agency isn’t free to just ignore it.

If it wants to do something different, it has to do what’s called notice and comment, which means just that. It means you tell the public what you’re about to do, and you give the public an opportunity to weigh in, and then you carefully consider any comments that you might receive. If those comments are critical of your plan, you have to explain why you’re going forward nonetheless with stopping a properly promulgated regulation.

HUD, under Ben Carson, didn’t do any of those things. They just announced one day that they were not going to go forward, gave no one any opportunity to comment, and barely gave anyone a reason for why they were doing it, certainly not reasons that we think will stand up in court.

So that’s our argument. We filed a complaint and we filed what’s called a preliminary injunction motion which allows the court to consider this very quickly because our clients will be harmed very quickly if this regulation doesn’t go into effect on January 1st like it was supposed to.

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Can you speak to the ground level effects of this regulation? What are  you hoping will change by switching the system from the way it is now to a zip code-based system, and what effect will that have on increasing access for voucher holders?

Erin: I can give you some real life examples. What this would have meant for a family who was say looking to move from Hartford to South Glastonbury is that they would have had an increased cap on their rent of $442 a month.  That’s a huge difference and that that’s the difference between getting a place and not getting place.

There would have been the same kind of increase in the cap of the rents that they could consider in Farmington of a $158 a month. In Avon, $248 dollars a month. This area is defined very broadly, so it included Mansfield Center. It would have gone up by $352 a month.

That [amount of money] makes or breaks it. That’s what can allow a family to access a neighborhood that meets what they want in a neighborhood.

And this is all about promoting choice. Families may decide to stay and have the option to stay or they may decide to move. Right now that’s not an option. That is what promotes segregation.

I’ve been in multiple focus groups with families who are on Section 8 who have expressed a deep desire for more choices, particularly with regard to their safety and the education for their children.

How does this segregation play out, or does it play out around racial lines? Economic lines? Both? What does the result of this segregation look like?

Erin: The Section 8 program housing choice voucher program is about 80 percent households of color. So we’re talking instantly about a population of color. If these policies are in place, you’re automatically limiting choices for that group.

Are there white people who get Section 8 vouchers? Yes. White voucher holders are much more likely to live in suburban areas in mostly white neighborhoods. And that is I think true for a couple of reasons. I think it’s true because there are housing authorities that are in mostly white suburban areas that give out vouchers and people living in those towns will get access to those vouchers and they’re more likely to be white. So they’ll be more likely to settle in the town they’re already at.

So I think it’s partly because of that and I think it’s also because of discrimination. We know that that’s a piece of this program as well.

Sasha: The only thing that I would add to that is that this is a problem that has gone back for a very long time. One of the purposes of setting up our current housing voucher program the way we do is it’s literally called housing choice vouchers. One of the points of that was to give people the choice to move out of impoverished areas and not cluster all the recipients of public housing funds in certain racially segregated and very poor areas.

The whole point of it was to do away with the whole housing project model where you concentrate all these people together. It’s hard to be poor, but it’s much harder when you put all the poor people together rather than dispersing them throughout communities.

So that was the point of this program in the first place and this action by HUD to promulgate this rule was really a major step forward in making the program live up to that promise. And that’s why it’s so disappointing and distressing to us that under Ben Carson, HUD is refusing to go forward with it.

Why is grouping together impoverished people a bad idea for them? What are the detriments of putting together impoverished people versus the benefits of dispersing them throughout a community?

Erin: This question comes up frequently in our work, and one of the ways that I have

This map shows the dispersal of rental vouchers across Connecticut. Open Communities Alliance / CT Mirror

found most effective in explaining it is to sort of tell the story of a friend of mine who was a teacher in the Hartford Public Schools for many years.

Her response to this is OK, if I’m a teacher and I’m lucky enough to have a class of 15 students, and three of the students coming into my class are coming from a high poverty background, I know based on my years of teaching that those children are much more likely to have faced challenges because of poverty.

Those challenges can come in all kinds of different forms. They can come in terms of having multiple caregivers because parents are working multiple jobs. They can come in simply not having enough to eat. They can come in the form of not having help with their homework because their parents also don’t have the educational background to help them. It’s hard to capture the full range of challenges that many kids from low- income families are facing.

So her reaction to that is if I have three kids out of 15 who are facing those challenges I can help them if that is the ratio. I can spend more time getting to know their parents. I can find out what challenges they’re really facing. I can connect them to resources. If I have a class instead that has 10 out of 15 kids who are facing the challenges of poverty, I can’t teach the kids who come to school ready to learn and I can’t teach the kids who come to school with all the challenges. Nobody learns.

Obviously I’m overstating it to a certain extent. There are kids who come from high poverty backgrounds who pull it off and there are kids who come from wealthy backgrounds who don’t. So there are all kinds of people out there but you know this is the idea that if we as a society can can create the situation where we have income mixing, we will have a greater chance to help kids who are facing challenges.

Sasha: I think that’s exactly right, and then that example in education can be taken to many other things. Certainly when you have neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly poor and overwhelmingly populated by people that are racial minorities, I think everyone knows by now that you see different outcomes in policing for example. You see different outcomes in terms of what businesses are willing to locate there.

You wind up in a situation where you have neighborhoods not just with people that face their own challenges, but the neighborhoods themselves present a challenge. The neighborhoods themselves have very limited opportunities because those opportunities don’t want to go there. That’s just a cycle that spins around and it makes it impossible for people to get out of that.

Erin: And I think there’s also the issue of municipal tax revenue, taking it away from the sort of very direct human aspect of this. We’ve done analysis of subsidized housing locations in Hartford for example and we’ve discovered a few neighborhoods that have 60 percent of the units in the neighborhood created through subsidized housing dollars, and in some cases a larger percentage.

When you have a government policy that is really generating neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly low income that means that you have issues with municipal tax revenue that you need to provide services. You end up with higher mill rates and you still can’t get to the point where you can pay for the services that people need. So mixed income communities offer the benefit of making places sustainable and I think that is really where we need to be heading.

In terms of this lawsuit in particular, is this a first step? Are you focusing on this particular regulation and then later you’ll move onto the next target in combating housing segregation?

Sasha: I guess in terms of the premise of the question it is making me laugh because it’s certainly not the first step. I look at this lawsuit and in some ways the lawsuit itself is years into the process, because advocates have been fighting so hard for this for so many years, including an earlier lawsuit against HUD back in the second Bush administration to prod HUD along to start doing this.

So I would see this not as the beginning of a process on this policy, but we’re trying to protect hard won gains that were made over many, many years and are just starting to bear fruit.

Erin: The other thing that’s happening here is if this policy hadn’t been rescinded, this policy that would have applied just to the Hartford region, our next step was to go to housing authorities across the state that aren’t affected by this and encourage them to adopt this same new rent calculation so that it wouldn’t just be in the Hartford region where we have this but it would be across the entire state.

Now we need to focus on just getting this regulation in place and getting the housing authorities in the state to do it in Hartford. So we’ve had to sort of stop and shift and divert from what we were going to originally do.

So you see this regulation as not just a means to combat housing segregation in the Hartford region, but across the entire state.

Erin: Absolutely.

Sasha: Let me add to what Erin just said. HUD’s own regulation made clear that what it was doing was actually cherry-picking some geographical areas in which it was especially appropriate and important to roll out these small area fair market rents, the Hartford area being one of them.

But HUD itself contemplated that if it was successful, the next step was going to be to consider a nationwide roll-out or at least a larger rollout. So what’s going on is not just delaying in the short term in places like Hartford, but it’s also delaying the ultimate roll-out we hope of these small area fair market rents more widely as Erin was describing, both through HUD and through efforts at the state level.

How has the state responded to this lawsuit? Is the state involved in this particular litigation is it just at the federal level?

Erin: The state isn’t involved in the litigation. The state of Connecticut, which runs its own tenant based Section 8 program, would have been required to implement the new calculation in the wider Hartford region had the rule not been suspended.

As you mentioned, this is part of a years-long process that represents the efforts of many people over a long period of time. How difficult does it become to recover from having this regulation blocked?

Sasha: Well, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Hopefully we won’t. Certainly it will make it much harder for people to do all the good work that they’ve been doing in preparation for this and in reliance on this.

It’s one thing when you have the federal government sort of working with advocates and partnering with them in a predictable way and in a rational way. But when you have a federal government that’s just made clear that it’s going to be hostile to these efforts, then it becomes very difficult to figure out what you’re going to do in a meaningful way.

Erin: I think the other interesting aspect of this is when you have rents that are higher in higher opportunity areas,it also can play a role to incentivize development, especially for developers who actually want to do affordable units because suddenly they can have lower income tenants who are paying essentially market rate prices.

It makes it a more appealing proposition to take the time and effort to get a few of those affordable units into what would otherwise be a market rate development.

Sasha: I think what people oftentimes don’t understand is they think it’s just the product of people’s individual choices that lead to these segregated communities. What we’re saying in this lawsuit and in other instances is that there is just this heavy thumb on the scale that’s making it just hard for voucher holders to live in communities and for, frankly, those communities to be welcoming to voucher holders.

All we’re really looking to do is give people choices, and we think if people have choices that we’ll see very different outcomes.

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