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Can a procedural change help level the housing playing field in St. Louis?

A portrait of Will Jordan, the executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council. February 2016.
File Photo | Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

Can access to more data and a revised funding application help the St. Louis region and the federal government fulfill the promise of the Fair Housing Act of 1968? The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development hopes so.

Affordable housing advocates gathered at the Saint Louis University law school building Friday to discuss the possible impact of a new HUD rule that requires communities that receive federal housing grants look at best practices nationwide when renewing their grant applications.

“This new rule gives cities the ability to utilize the kind of things that my organization or the federal government has had access to for a long time that is statistics on what their city looks like stacked up against what resources there are in their city,” said Will Jordan, executive director of the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council.

Jordan was hesitant to give specifics on what changes he hopes to see from the new HUD application, but suggested examples of affordable housing in wealthier communities.

“It’s about understanding that they’ve done things in other cities where there’s affordable housing and you didn’t even know it was there because it’s mixed-income housing. There’s some high-end, there’s some condos, there’s some apartments, there might be some section 8,” Jordan said, adding that organizations such as the Equal Housing Opportunity Council will also be partnering with communities to find ways to increase affordable housing.

Jordan’s agency is putting HUD’s data tool on its website as another aid for the public and the region. He said the goal is for the site to be live in about a month.

“It makes a difference when people see for themselves what is the real condition of the city and what our needs are,” said Jordan, adding that when a new private development is proposed in a city, people will be better able to see if it’s something their city needs.

The city of St. Charles and Jefferson County will be the first St. Louis-area jurisdictions to use the new HUD application. Their applications are due in September.

Speaking during the conference Friday, HUD assistant secretary Gustavo Velasquez said that it will take time for the HUD application change to have an impact, especially in St. Louis, where there are so many municipalities and jurisdictions, each with their own time to apply for grants.

“It’s a mountain task to start and follow through on an endeavor to take a regional approach to furthering fair housing at the regional level. I’m keenly aware of that,” said Velasquez, “But at the end of the day, for people these boundaries are invisible. They cross them every day. They know there are differences in opportunity between them. So it is important always to consider the regional approach.”

Gustavo Velasquez, assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, speaks at the St. Louis fair Housing conference
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Gustavo Velasquez is an assistant secretary with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

 Velasquez framed the issue of fair housing as an issue of access to opportunity.

“All of us in this room know that the fundamental ideal that hard work and determination will open the door to a better life is not evenly realized because access to opportunity, to real opportunity, is not available to all,” Velasquez said. “At the intersection of this problem, the issue of lack of access to opportunity, is housing because housing is an anchor that dictates so many other aspects of our life, and how we prosper and help our children prosper growing up.”

“Think about the factors you consider when you’re choosing a home: the quality of the elementary or middle school you’re going to send your children to.  The kind of transportation options you have available to go easily to and from work so that you spend less time commuting and more time with your kids at night. Amenities like a good library nearby. A good park. Food options—what’s the quality of food around you where you live. What’s the quality in terms of crime? You want to make sure that you live in a neighborhood that’s not infested with crime. The quality of air that you breathe. And for those of you who have been following the news lately, the quality of water our children drink.  All of this are things we all consider when choosing where we live. Fair housing is about housing choice. It’s about being able to go where you decide to live because you know that you and your children will have better access to opportunity,” Velasquez said.

Local panelists also presented research on the current affordable housing landscape in the region during the conference. Their presentations underscored the need for collaboration not only between municipalities but also between government departments so that housing can be planned around access to jobs and transportation.

Will Winter is with the University of Missouri-St. Louis Public Policy Research Center.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Will Winter is with the University of Missouri-St. Louis Public Policy Research Center.

According to Will Winter of the University of Missouri-St. Louis’ Public Policy Research Center, affordable housing is clustered in concentrated pockets in the St. Louis region.

“There’s a clear spatial pattern to how we’re investing public dollars in affordable housing,” Winter said, noting that he researched investment in public housing, rental vouchers and low-income housing tax credits given to the state by the federal government.

“If you look at the locations of these units, they’re clustered in key parts of our region. They tend to be in the city and the county. They tend to be clustered around the downtown area in the city and they tend to be clustered in north county or mid-county. And on the east side, in Illinois, they tend to be clustered in St. Clair County,” Winter said.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.