Racial disparities in subsidized housing — which once saw poor black families overwhelmingly housed in large public developments — have essentially disappeared after decades of inequality, according to a new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers.

But low-income black families are still far more likely than poor whites to live in segregated, impoverished neighborhoods.

The findings show the critical importance of enforcing fair housing laws, researchers said, given the long history of housing discrimination against African Americans. More than half of all children living in subsidized housing in 2011 were black.

Dozens of successful lawsuits have been brought against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for segregating black families in poor and predominantly minority neighborhoods — which put them at a lifelong disadvantage in education and employment.

Trump officials have indicated they may roll back Obama-era rules instituted to address these disparities. Housing Secretary Ben Carson recently warned against making public housing too comfortable for the poor. Trump has also proposed cutting HUD's budget by 13 percent.

“Black families have been disproportionately represented in inner- city public housing, and there was not an equal opportunity for them to be in multifamily or voucher housing,” said Sandra Newman, a Johns Hopkins policy studies professor who lead the research.

 


In the 1970s, more than 60 percent of black families with subsidized housing lived in public developments, Newman and her co-author found.

The situation was almost the reverse for white families. Only a third of white families with subsidized housing lived in those giant developments, whereas nearly 70 percent chose multifamily units. The privately owned and managed multifamily housing were often in much better physical condition than public developments. Just under 40 percent of black families had access to such housing.

The inequalities persisted through the 1990s. Now, however, the most recent data shows that — largely through the rising use of vouchers — low-income black and white families today have a nearly equal shot at living in privately owned and federally subsidized multifamily units or homes in the private housing market, the study found.

Sixty percent of black families as well as white families with subsidized housing in the 2000s used housing vouchers. A quarter of black families and a fifth of whites lived in public housing projects. And less than a fifth of each race lived in multifamily housing.

“Inequality in access to different kinds of housing has now been completely mitigated,” said Newman, who directs the Center on Housing, Neighborhoods and Communities at the university’s Institute for Health and Social Policy.

What accounts for this shift?

Newman and her co-author, Scott Holupka, cannot determine for sure but said the nature of publicly subsidized housing has changed over the years, with high-rise housing projects being replaced with low-rise townhouses that may be run privately. There’s also been a larger movement toward voucher programs that allow families to choose where they want to live.

Newman and Holupka also found no racial differences in the physical quality of public housing projects or how these developments were managed.

There is one area, though, where blacks are faring much worse than whites. Despite having an equal chance at the various types of subsidized housing, African American families are nine times more likely to live in segregated neighborhoods with high poverty and lower home values.

About a third of black households with children who moved into subsidized housing in the 2000s lived in such disadvantaged areas, compared with only 4 percent of whites.

Researchers said this pattern, which held no matter what kind of subsidized housing families chose, could result from various reasons. Housing projects and low-rent units have historically been located in central cities, where there’s a disproportionate number of poor African Americans. Black families with children who live in public housing are more than twice as likely as whites to reside in central cities. Landlords in the surrounding suburbs may also discriminate and not rent to black families with vouchers.

President Obama, toward the end of his term, proposed several initiatives to help poor families move to better neighborhoods, including expanding the voucher program to cover more expensive rent and encourage more landlords to participate.

HUD also strengthened the requirement that communities receiving federal housing funds adhere to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits housing discrimination. The new rules require communities to seek out pockets of segregation and poverty; study how low-quality schools, limited jobs and high crime came to be; and put forth remedies. 

Newman called the measures “possibly the boldest policy step in recent years” in her paper, published this week in Housing Policy Debate.

“It’s an attempt to be proactive about assisting tenants to find these higher quality neighborhoods,” Newman said. “But HUD is simply ignoring this at the present time.”

Critics, including many Republican politicians such as Carson, have objected to such measures as too onerous and have sought to eliminate the new rules.