The Essex Townhouses family housing developed by the City of New Haven.

$231 billion is a lot of money, but is it enough to correct the racial inequities that were built into the very foundations of U.S. housing policy? It may not be, but it’s vitally important that New Haven —and Connecticut more broadly— take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity given to us by President Biden and congressional Democrats to directly confront the problems of housing policy with an explicit racial equity frame.

Karen DuBois-Walton

Why is it essential to direct the federal funds from the American Rescue Plan using a racial equity frame? Our country’s history of housing policy helps us to understand why race must lead the conversation.

During the Great Depression, housing activists fought for and won the battle to create a national public housing system. This was a massive triumph for the working people of the United States, but contained within these revolutionary policies were explicitly racist provisions that enforced segregationist policies on all public housing projects. Throughout the 20th century, the Federal Housing Authority —now a part of the Department of Housing and Urban Development— further entrenched segregation all throughout the country by refusing to insure mortgages to individuals living in, or simply near African American communities. At the same time, the federal government subsidized the construction of all-white suburbs that explicitly prohibited African Americans from purchasing homes within them.

While our country’s history provides insight on how the past plays a role in this conversation about race, the conversation does not and cannot end there. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the divide between our Black and Brown communities and the more affluent white suburbs. One out of every 480 African Americans between the ages of 40 and 64 have died from COVID. Among Hispanics this number is one in every 390, but among whites it is one in 1,300. Among minority communities, it is relatively common for families to live in crowded housing, which only increases these communities’ susceptibility to COVID. For our residents of color, this has become a very real situation of life and death.

Segregationists and red liners may have dictated housing policy in America in the past, but the money and flexibility provided to state and local governments by the American Rescue Plan is an explicit acknowledgment by the Federal Administration and Congress that this money is intended to repair the harm created by prior government policy.

New Haven needs to seize upon this rare opportunity to invest in housing and neighborhood development. The City of New Haven was given over $100 million in federal pandemic relief, and I have put forth a plan for at least $20 million of this money to be put towards the creation of more affordable rental housing, affordable homeownership opportunities, and neighborhood community investments that grow wealth in our least resourced communities.

Recognizing that the affordability crisis is an income crisis, we all need to commit to raising the minimum wage to be a housing wage. While recent efforts have increased the minimum wage, it remains far too low when we consider that residents across the state need to make at least $27.37/hr to afford a two-bedroom apartment. And since we won’t get there overnight,  the City should take the first steps to increase income by using these recovery funds to create a housing subsidy for families in our least resourced communities and by ensuring that contract awards made with these federal dollars include the requirement that workers be paid a housing wage.

Maybe these seem like “pie in the sky” ideas, but fortunately, they’re widely popular with Republicans and Democrats across the country. According to recent polling from the National Low Income Housing Coalition, 74% of all Americans support investing in housing development programs for low-income residents, and 68% support expanding funding for public housing authorities to provide critical infrastructure repairs for the $70 billion backlog of needs.

Twenty million dollars is a lot of money, but it is only 20% of all that our City will receive. Consider it a down payment on a long overdue debt owed to families and neighborhoods who were deprived of wealth and constrained to under-resourced communities for generations.  The federal government recognized the need to begin to pay this debt and has offered some resources.  It is up to us to ensure that the payments go to those for whom they were designed.  The time and evidence for an investment on housing and neighborhood development is no greater than now.

The American Rescue Plan is a monumental piece of legislation that provides cities and states all across the country with an opportunity and with choices. Let’s make the right choices–choices that can eliminate the extremely wide wealth gap between our communities of color and our white residents. Let’s make the intentional choices to invest with equity and racial justice in mind.

Karen DuBois-Walton, Ph.D. is the President of Elm City Communities/Housing Authority of the City of New Haven.