By Samuel Yang, MPH, Research Assistant at Washington University in St. Louis
This is a revised version of an op-ed that appeared under the author’s name in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
It’s been a bad year for houses—the White House, statehouse, House of Representatives, and “House of Cards” have all rotated through the spotlight. But as the nation’s eyes have been fearfully glued to the drama unfolding inthose houses, affordable housing in St. Louis has silently taken even more hits than usual.
This month, in response to changes in state discrimination laws, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development followed through on a months-long threat to suspend the state’s participation in federal fair housing programs. This comes on the heels of a Missouri Housing Development Commission decision late last year to not match federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) funds, effectively halving the amount of money available to low-income housing developers.
These are programs designed to produce quality housing and safeguard equal access to them. The Fair Housing Assistance Program helps state and local agencies investigate, enforce, and promote housing access. The Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC) program helps developers build affordable housing in neighborhoods where it’s otherwise unavailable or unfeasible. Under them, federal, state, and local agencies worked together, a tenuous balance that is set to be brutally disrupted.
Such changes don’t just affect the market—they pose a serious threat to health and well-being for St. Louis residents. Most immediately, in-home exposures directly impact physical and mental health. Housing costs also affect the ability of individuals and families to manage illness and disease. Healthcare, sick days, and healthy habits are expensive. If housing is expensive, too, cash-strapped families often have to make hard choices.
Beyond those effects, though, public health advocates are becoming increasingly aware that health, like real estate, is all about location, location, location. That sticky mantra isn’t narrow obsession. It’s a reflection of how neighborhood conditions can be nearly all-encompassing in influencing health outcomes.
Cutting-edge academic programs here in St. Louis are connecting their programs in urban planning and design with public health and social work, but they’re just playing catch-up to every homeowner since the ancient urbanites who first started settling by rivers. Those early city-dwellers knew what the first practitioners of zoning (invented partially to separate houses from factories) knew, which is also what every parent today who buys their home based on school districts knows: Where you live is deeply tied to how you live.
That means questions and concerns about fair housing are inherently also about neighborhood access. Do all house-hunters have discrimination-free access to neighborhoods? Are they all shown houses in every neighborhood they can afford? Are they all treated equally when applying for mortgages?
The evidence says no. This is a problem, because in St. Louis, place (and race, to which it has been tied by abuse and neglect) is essentially a foundation for what parks, hospitals, schools, and jobs are within reach. All of those eventually affect health—and not just for this week or next week. Research suggests that children of mothers who grew up in underserved neighborhoods are at a disadvantage even if they themselves don’t. One crack in the foundation leads to further instability, which echoes across generations.
This is especially important in St. Louis, where in the past year alone, alarms have been sounded over illegal evictions, handicap accessibility, and policies that could jeopardize housing access for victims of domestic violence and the disabled. Just three years ago, reports emerged that housing voucher holders, often people of color, were discriminated against and “steered” toward certain neighborhoods, reinforcing segregation and health disparities. All of this in a city that already ranks in the top 10 for racial segregation and bottom 10 for economic mobility.
Despite the initial chaos, opportunities still exist for Missouri to fix its foundation. LIHTC’s opponents say they want to see long-term improvements to its efficiency, but fine-tuning a program doesn’t require the dramatic gesture of entirely pulling state funding and crippling the program. Let’s put together a plan for reform, and let’s do it through an honest, open process that won’t sacrifice important, necessary work already being done.
Furthermore, revisions to our state discrimination laws that restore harmony with federal laws need to be made by May 15 (the federal government’s deadline, three days before the end of the legislative session) so that fair housing funds can flow again.
With those plans and changes in place, state and local agencies can get back to work providing and protecting fair housing—and families across the state can start building their own healthy lives and happy homes on that foundation.
Samuel Yang, MPH is a Research Assistant at Washington University in St. Louis and a resident of South City St. Louis.
Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
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