December 7, 2023

Fair Housing and the State’s Opportunity Maps


By Alison Cingolani

Fair Housing & the State’s Opportunity Maps

Last week, SV@Home and other members of the Community-Based Developers Collaborative submitted a letter to the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC) to share our concerns about the State’s Opportunity Map. We believe that despite recent revisions, the Map continues to undermine the State’s effective response to racial and economic disparity in access to opportunities, resources, and the broader Fair Housing obligations that this map is intended to address.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH)

Policy decisions made at every level of government have contributed to patterns of racial segregation and unequal access to resources, and continue to maintain these patterns today. In 2018, the California legislature passed AB 686 to address these harms and reduce segregation in California. Known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), the law requires jurisdictions to take a broad range of actions to understand the causes of local segregation and disparate housing needs and to take action to address these needs and create integrated communities. AB 686 defines AFFH as “taking meaningful actions, in addition to combating discrimination, that overcome patterns of segregation and foster inclusive communities free from barriers that restrict access to opportunity based on protected characteristics.” The law lists four types of “meaningful actions” that all jurisdictions are required to take:  

  • addressing significant disparities in housing needs and access to opportunity, 
  • replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, 
  • transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, 
  • and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws.

The law requires all jurisdictions to direct their programs and activities relating to housing and community development in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing and not to take any action inconsistent with this obligation. State agencies are also required to follow AFFH law.

Opportunity Mapping

To comply with AFFH, state agencies that fund affordable housing production use a technique called opportunity mapping. Opportunity mapping tries to measure resources and characteristics of a given community that are linked to positive life outcomes for residents, such as adult educational attainment, income, and low pollution levels. State agencies responsible for allocating funding for affordable housing are using opportunity mapping to prioritize funding for areas they have identified as “high-resource,” and reduce the number of affordable housing developments they fund in “low-resource” areas (where the majority of affordable housing has historically been built). By doing this, the State is hoping to both reduce racial segregation and increase access to resources such as high-quality schools, food, and healthcare for low-income residents. However, their approach is having unintended consequences: neighborhoods that have endured decades of government neglect and disinvestment are seeing funds for affordable housing directed away to wealthy communities instead.

The California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) and the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee (TCAC) contracted with researchers to design the State’s Opportunity Map. The Map uses publicly available data from sources such as the U.S. Census Bureau, the California Department of Education, and CalEnviroScreen (a tool that helps identify communities most affected by pollution) to measure place-based characteristics linked to economic mobility for low-income families and their children. The Opportunity Map is a key resource that local jurisdictions use to guide AFFH programs and is also used for scoring affordable housing developments in competition for LIHTC and other state funding programs. AFFH, as state agencies have chosen to implement it, has the potential to expand housing choices and access to resources for low-income households and people of color in historically exclusive neighborhoods. However, it also completely overlooks the State’s responsibility under AFFH to “transform racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity.”

Advancing the Full Mandate of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing 

We continue to believe that mapping tools such as the Opportunity Map, which reflect the assumptions, values, and perspectives of their creators, are inappropriate measures of a thriving community. The Opportunity Map cannot, and does not, capture the opportunities available within communities by indexing a handful of data points for each census tract. Unfortunately, State agencies continue to use such a limited tool as shorthand to describe and define the potential of communities to nurture their residents and, ultimately, to limit investment in affordable housing in those communities that require it the most. 

SV@Home supports policies and funding that open exclusionary communities to lower-income households, expanding affordable residential choices, and agrees that it is necessary to work to redress the harms caused by policy decisions at every level of government to deliberately block people of color from resources. We believe these actions are necessary to acknowledge the dignity and agency of low-income families to make decisions about which neighborhoods best meet their needs. 

However, these actions alone do not redress the deliberate harms caused by disinvestment in the neighborhoods to which people of color were historically limited, and in fact, continue to harm current members of those communities by repeating historical patterns of deliberate underinvestment. Nor do they recognize the value of communities where strong ethnic ties and identities foster durable social and cultural connections, which can amplify neighborhood revitalization or even reverse neighborhood decline. Finally, the State’s approach fails to acknowledge that affordable housing can improve access to housing stability and therefore have a direct impact on economic activity, health, and wellness.

It is critical that State agencies, along with all local jurisdictions, continue to advance all of the directives of AFFH law, including directing investment to transform racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity. In this work, funding agencies should ensure that the communities harmed by decades of government-sponsored discrimination are engaged in real decision-making about their communities’ priorities. Local community-based organizations embedded in historically disinvested neighborhoods are well placed to help bring residents to the table and co-create solutions to the issues important to residents. 

An excellent example of this model is happening in the historic business corridor 7th Street in West Oakland, CA, where a multi-year effort supports an integrated, place-based approach to advancing a collective economic revitalization in which everyone is considered and the community is prioritized. The vision for the 7th Street Economic Inclusion Action Planning process is to create a thriving Black business, arts, and cultural district that draws on and sustains 7th Street’s rich legacy of Black community solidarity, cultural activism, and political resistance. Community-led priorities center on supporting the sustained activation of underutilized commercial space, providing technical assistance to Black- and People of Color-owned businesses, and reviving the community character of the 7th Street corridor. The impact of this work is demonstrated in the State’s Opportunity Map, which saw the neighborhood increase significantly in resources between 2023 and 2024.

This is a powerful statement on the chance to use the Opportunity Map to identify areas where California has historically failed its residents through systemic disinvestment and begin to redress those harms with much-needed funds for the development of affordable housing.