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Fair housing conference focuses on school segregation, occupancy permits

A slide from a presentation during an April 2015  fair housing conference shows how Section 8 vouchers are concentrated in north St. Louis and north St. Louis County, and that most voucher holders are black.
courtesy Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Slide from Phil Tegeler's presentation at the fair housing conference Friday, April 10, 2015.

Almost 45 percent of St. Louis-area children living in Section 8 housing go to schools ranked in the bottom 10th percentile of the state. That’s almost 20 percent worse than the national average, according to a report compiled by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council.

“The way we’ve organized our schools is keeping low-income kids and kids of color separate from white kids in the region. And they’re being separated in a way that exposes them to lower-performing, lower-resource schools. And that’s just not fair,” said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the council.

Tegeler was the keynote speaker Friday at a fair housing conference organized by the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, where he spoke on regional barriers to fair housing and integrated neighborhoods.

One of Tegeler’s main points was that fair housing and school policy have a “reciprocal relationship.” Due to that link, Tegeler said, housing and education leaders should work together to break the cycle of school segregation.

Tegeler also explained the history and laws that have created segregation in St. Louis and throughout the country. He followed his comments with suggestions of how changes might be made.

“These are all just laws and structures we’ve created.” Tegeler explained. “We can re-engineer them.”

Among his suggestions: reduce the size of developments built with Low Income Tax Credits and set rental rates for Section 8 housing based on cost of rent in smaller regions so that people can use their vouchers throughout a metropolitan area.

Tegeler also recommended eliminating occupancy permits — a common requirement in St. Louis-area municipalities. Tegeler said that he had never heard of another region of the country that uses them and they are potentially discriminatory. Many St. Louis-area municipalities require residents to get occupancy permits

Phil Tegeler, director of D.C.-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council gives the keynote presentation at the fair housing conference Friday, April 10, 2015 at the Missouri History Museum.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Phil Tegeler, director of D.C.-based Poverty & Race Research Action Council gives the keynote presentation at the fair housing conference Friday, April 10, 2015 at the Missouri History Museum.

University of Missouri law professor Rigel Oliveri expanded on that thought later in the conference.

She said requiring individuals to get permission to live in a municipality may disproportionately harm people protected by the Fair Housing Act such as immigrants, domestic violence victims and people with mental illness.

Oliveri said occupancy permits may also unfairly discriminate against blended families by limiting households to those related by blood or marriage.

Several audience members pushed back against Oliveri, saying that occupancy permits address health and safety issues, and that they help keep housing in good condition and limit the number of people living in small homes.

“There needs to be accountability for properties,” said one audience member. “If we want to keep our communities up to code, if we want to keep good families moving into our communities, than they have to be up to code.”

Oliveri responded by saying that most cities in the country handle code violations by fining landlords and homeowners.

“This is actually a pretty unusual system. I’ve never encountered it anywhere,” Oliveri said. “What most communities do is they do have code enforcement. So, they will crack down on nuisance properties -- long grass, peeling paint -- all of those things. It’s just done through the code enforcement office. It’s not done by requiring every person to live inside a property,” Oliveri said.

About half the audience, both black and white, clapped after comments in favor of occupancy permits.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.