Affordable Housing: One Important Step Towards Creating Safe, Just, and Equitable Communities

Oct 13 2020

Written By: Andrew H. Foster, CAHEC Board of Directors

There is no doubt that 2020 will be a year to remember. One of the most important events of the year was the brutal killing of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police department and the broad and sustained movement for racial justice that it sparked. Certainly, many Americans have been working for decades to achieve greater racial equality, but the last several months have just been different. Among other things, large majorities of white Americans now say that they believe Blacks and other minorities face racism and structural discrimination, both in the criminal justice system and in the broader society. 

While we may be relatively united in our understanding of the problem, there is less consensus about the solution. One controversial aspect of this movement has been the call by some to “defund the police”. A reasonable understanding of this is that it is a challenge to us all to honestly assess how to best invest public resources to enhance public safety. This reframing is leading to some important developments. For example, there now appears to be a general agreement that law enforcement is asked to do too much, and that more resources need to be invested in mental health services so that police are not asked to deliver social services in addition to enforcing the law. 

While it is a different kind of investment, expanding support for affordable housing development and preservation is also essential if we want to help ensure that all our communities are safe and just. A study of the impact of the development of multi-family housing financed with the federal low-income housing tax credit (“LIHTC”) in low-income communities shows what a difference high-quality affordable housing makes. LIHTC developments not only enhance surrounding property values, but they also reduce crime rates and segregation. In contrast, housing instability due to the lack of affordable housing, as well as high rates of foreclosure and eviction, increases crime rates.

Before anyone was talking about defunding the police, researchers undertook a fascinating study in Chicago to identify what they call Million Dollar Blocks. These are areas where taxpayers are paying at least $1 million to incarcerate former residents of those blocks. The study identified 851 “Million Dollar Blocks” in Chicago; of these 121 were ones where the public payment was more than $1 million to incarcerate non-violent drug offenders. These areas correlate highly to the neighborhoods in Chicago that are the most racially segregated, have the highest poverty rates, are the most violent, and have low rates of housing stability. Imagine the difference it could make to spend $1 million on high quality affordable housing every year on each block in each of these communities.

One of the good things that has come out of 2020 is an urgent focus on the need to advance racial justice in the U.S.  While finding effective ways to reduce police violence against Black Americans is one essential part of this work, it cannot be all we do if the ultimate goal is move toward true equality by, in part, creating safer, more just, and more equitable communities.  As a nation we spend over $180 billion annually on policing and mass incarceration without doing much to reduce crime. In contrast, we spend less than $10 billion a year on the LIHTC program despite the powerful effects that high-quality, affordable housing has on reducing poverty, expanding opportunity, and enhancing public safety. Now is the time to rethink how we allocate public resources to ensure that we are investing wisely to get the communities that we all deserve. Dramatically increasing the resources dedicated to affordable housing must be a key priority of this work.