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Where will data take the Trump administration on housing?

Multiple studies have shown the strong connection between racial residential segregation and health. Will Ben Carson's HUD be allowed to collect that kind of data to support its mission?

A little over a week after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. The law directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to pursue all of its programs in a "manner affirmatively to further" fair housing. The third HUD secretary, George Romney, attempted to affirmatively further fair housing by rejecting funding requests from municipalities that supported segregation.

That turned out to be too much for President Richard M. Nixon, who wrote in a secret memo that "legal segregation is totally wrong" but "forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong." Romney resigned from HUD in 1972 and ever since, the issue of fair housing was pretty much a non-issue for HUD. Until 2015.

In July 2015, HUD, under the leadership of Julián Castro, released the Affirmatively Further Fair Housing final rule. AFFH intends to make municipalities work toward taking "meaningful actions that, taken together, address significant disparities in housing needs and in access to opportunity." The rule demands public housing authorities and any jurisdiction that receives funding from HUD to submit an assessment of fair housing (single or a few in collaboration). To help with this process, HUD published a Data and Mapping tool of fair housing, which assists jurisdictions as they identify areas of integration, segregation, and concentrated areas of poverty. With all this information, and with a requirement of community participation, fair housing plans must be incorporated into existing planning processes. The AFFH rule is arguably the biggest step toward fulfilling the Fair Housing Act's mandate to eliminate segregation and create inclusive communities since the law was enacted.

The Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017, introduced in mid-January by Rep. Paul Gosar (R., Ariz.) and Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), is intended to abolish the AFFH rule. This is an iteration of a previous bill that was proposed by the same congressmen in 2015, and was defeated. Residential segregation is still a huge problem in America, so the reasoning behind abolishing the AFFH is unclear. The new bill goes one step further than its predecessor — it aims to make segregation invisible by banning funding to create evidence. Section 3 of the act states:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

The reasoning for this specific section of the Act could be the 2015 Supreme Court decision Texas v. Inclusive Communities, which recognized that disparate impact lawsuits can be filed under the Fair Housing Act. Without "information on community racial disparities or disparities in access," how can we test for disparate impact? This is nothing more than another law added to the list of policies that created and perpetuate segregation in America.

When you work among academics, as we do, it is not rare to hear someone say, "I wish we had more data." Indeed, the refrain of "If only I had the data … " is not a foreign sentiment to anyone doing empirical research. The limitations on data are endless — data are expensive, proprietary, extremely messy, or redacted to the point of uselessness. What is not limited, however, is our belief that as long as data exist, someone will find a way to use it for good. As academics it is our job. W.E.B Du Bois said in 1899, "We must study, we must investigate, we must attempt to solve" with "an earnest desire for the truth despite its possible unpleasantness." Without data, we can't even attempt to answer that charge. Section 3 of the proposed Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017, may present even greater limits on our task.

It is hard to overstate just how important the task is. Multiple studies have shown the strong connection between racial residential segregation and health.  According to the American Healthy Homes Survey, African American households are significantly more likely to be located in a unit with lead-based paint and other lead hazards.  In some of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods, one out of five children under the age of five will suffer from elevated blood lead levels.  Having geospatial data to analyze patterns of mobility, and the lack of it, is key to be able to address the problem. Philadelphia was one of the first cities to start an AFFH assessment process, which yielded a 758-page report. Some are optimistic that Philly is far enough along in the process, and that there is enough will on the local level to pursue healthy housing, that the city's plan will continue without direct pressure from HUD. However, a law that will not allow the continuation will take the decision out of Philly's hands. Moreover, a law that prohibits federal funding for data will hinder future efforts to create evidence-based policy.

In the week that White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer declared that "sometimes we can disagree with the facts," we must be more vigilant to insure that we have facts. A year ago, Ben Carson, whose nomination as President Trump's HUD secretary was approved by a Senate committee last week, declared (about a different topic), "You make decisions based on evidence and not on ideology."

Dr. Carson, if there is no data, how can you make a decision based on evidence? When we eliminate data about problems, we don't eliminate the problem itself. Data should be a public good, and many types of data are best housed in government. When we disagree on policy, we should aspire to have more data to enrich the debate, not less.

Read more about The Public's Health.