HUD Transportation Policy May Inadvertently Fuel Residential Segregation

In communities across the country, residential segregation is often sustained by metropolitan transportation systems that contribute to the segregated housing patterns, particularly in older cities. Now, these flawed transportation systems may be influencing where the government provides housing for low-income and minority families.

For years, communities with high tax bases and good schools have declined to invest in either affordable transit or affordable housing, creating difficult barriers for low-income people who sought to join them. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may soon inadvertently help communities strengthen these barriers. HUD is proposing to use existing transportation grids as a guide for concentrating even more low-income families in otherwise resource-poor neighborhoods, by locating government-assisted housing where transportation costs are low.

HUD's new "Location Affordability Index" evolved from an innovative analysis called the "Housing + Transportation Index," engineered by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. The H+T Index was originally designed to assist regional planners in restraining destructive housing sprawl, and to help homebuyers assess the combined cost of transportation and housing for homes located far from job centers.

Two years ago, policymakers at HUD convened a "Housing and Transportation Affordability Initiative" to explore the impacts of these combined costs of housing and transportation on its subsidized housing clients. Yet so far, instead of exerting pressure on wealthy communities to provide affordable transit, HUD's approach would limit family housing choices to areas already served by public transit.

Where low-income areas served by public transit are in the path of gentrification, affordable housing should be preserved in those targeted areas to ensure that existing residents can benefit from positive changes in the neighborhood and are not displaced.

But many neighborhoods served by transit are also served by high poverty, low-performing schools, and have crime rates and other health factors that adversely affect vulnerable children. These factors can all tax family budgets, just as transportation costs can, and can be a long-term drag on financial stability. Conversely, families who can access good schools, healthy environments, and other social resources have a better chance to lift their children out of poverty for the long run.

A housing-plus-transportation strategy that limits families' choices about where to move is paternalistic and contrary to the spirit of the Fair Housing Act, which is supposed to guide HUD policy toward fostering integration. In fact, a group of transportation experts convened to advise HUD's Housing and Transportation Affordability Initiative have agreed that its policies should account for fair housing concerns and avoid re-concentrating poverty.

HUD still has time to take a better approach, one that focuses on access to high opportunity communities and acknowledges the consequences (economic and otherwise) of segregated housing and transportation patterns.

Instead of conforming our affordable housing plans to existing transit patterns, why not give lower-income families more housing choices in high-performing school districts, by bringing better transportation options to those places at the same time that new affordable housing is developed there? Expanded transit access can also include areas that already have apartments with rents accessible to moderate-income families (and low-income families with housing vouchers).

This type of "development-oriented transit" takes into account the legacy of segregation built into our existing transportation systems, empowers lower income families, and will lead to more diverse and vibrant communities for everyone.

Despite the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, the nation has never addressed residential segregation in a comprehensive way. As a result, many communities are as segregated today as they were the 1960s, even as our older suburbs are becoming more diverse. Moreover, residential segregation is a key factor in a myriad of disparities that impact on the poor and people of color in communities across the country. Studies repeatedly show that segregated communities have the worst performing schools, the highest unemployment, more people affected by chronic diseases and more environment hazards -- all factors contributing to shorter life expectancy for low-income and people of color.

Dr. Leah Platt Boustan, an associate professor of economics at UCLA, writes:

Many studies have found that blacks who live in segregated metropolitan areas have lower educational attainment and lower earnings than their counterparts in more integrated areas. This difference appears to reflect the causal effect of segregation on economic outcomes and not simply the fact that white residents are more likely to move away from poor black neighborhoods. Isolating the mechanisms that generate the association between segregated environments and minority disadvantage is an important input into effective public policy. The two most prominent explanations are the physical isolation of black neighborhoods from employment opportunities and the harmful social interactions within black neighborhoods due to concentrated poverty.

While the proposed HUD transportation policy has good intentions, it's critical that the nation adopt public policies that help to integrate communities, not keep us divided.

Philip Tegeler is executive director of the Policy & Race Research Action Council, a civil rights policy organization based in Washington, D.C. Receive PRRAC's Bimonthly Update by clicking HERE. To arrange broadcast or print interview Mr. Tegeler please contact: Michael K. Frisby at or 202-625-4328.