ERC Submits Comment on Regional Fair Housing Plan
On January 30, 2023, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and eight local jurisdictions released their draft Regional Fair Housing Plan meant to identify barriers to fair housing choice and strategies for overcoming those barriers. The ERC participated in the process by serving on the plan’s Community Advisory Committee. The final plan will serve as a blueprint for local governments’ efforts to promote affordable, fair, and integrated housing.
In March, the ERC submitted a comment commending the plan’s collaborative approach and emphasis on affordable housing. The comment also emphasized the importance of setting goals for deeply affordable housing, committing to conducting fair housing testing and other systemic investigations, and including an implementation roadmap in the final plan.
Read the ERC’s full comment below.
ERC’s Comment on the Regional Fair Housing Plan, Submitted March 30, 2023
The Equal Rights Center (ERC) is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington, D.C. and nationwide. For many years, the ERC has conducted intakes with individuals in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region who believe they may have experienced housing discrimination, investigated individual claims and systemic forms of housing discrimination, pursued enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and state and local fair housing laws as needed, and conducted education and outreach about fair housing protections and requirements. We were also honored to serve on the community advisory committee as part of the regional analysis of impediments effort. We have reviewed the draft Metropolitan Washington Regional Fair Housing Plan and appreciate the opportunity to offer the following comments to be taken into consideration in the crafting of the final regional fair housing plan.
Overall, we appreciate the novel regional approach taken for this fair housing plan, which MWCOG and participating jurisdictions were not required to undertake, and which we understand likely demanded additional resources compared to if individual jurisdictions in the region had proceed independently. We hope the regional approach serves as a national model for other metropolitan regions. Previous fair housing plans in the region have been individually prepared by local jurisdictions, for example by the District of Columbia or Fairfax County, which can make it challenging to identify the broader regional trends and solutions necessary to address a regional housing market. The ERC commends the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG) and the participating local jurisdictions for this more collaborative approach.
We also appreciate the coalition’s effort to engage the community in crafting the plan. It is crucial that the area’s residents – especially members of groups that have historically been devalued and left out of planning and decision-making processes – have a say in shaping the region’s fair housing priorities.
Of course, no effort that is simultaneously so expansive but also detailed in nature can be perfect, but we remain invested in ensuring that the final plan is as good as it possibly can be. In that spirit, we offer the following comments, concerns, and suggestions, targeted at ensuring there are actionable strategies and accompanying commitments to ensure the region achieves the plan’s goals:
To Stem the Tide of Increasing Neighborhood Segregation, the Plan Must Include Broader Commitments to Building & Preserving Deeply Affordable Housing
The ERC appreciates the plan’s focus on increasing affordable housing to combat the tide of increasing segregation in the region. Throughout the United States, historical racism and its ongoing legacy have not only impacted people’s access to housing, but also their access to employment and their ability to accumulate wealth. As a result, class and race are deeply intertwined. The most recent DC and Fairfax County AIs found that a lack of affordable housing played a significant role in worsening neighborhood segregation. This trend holds true across the region.
However, the affordable housing crisis is not new. For the past several years, the ERC has been ringing the alarm about the affordable housing crisis in our region, particularly in the District. The District of Columbia Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2006–2011 identified that most housing in DC was unaffordable to most DC residents. Efforts over the last decade have proven inadequate to stop the worsening problem of housing unaffordability. The scope of the affordable housing crisis facing the region is now massive, and will require local jurisdictions to mount equally massive, thoughtful, and immediate investments in response.
For this reason, we were relieved to see the plan’s stated goals to not only build affordable housing, but also preserve it. Given the pace of growth in our region, affordable housing established under temporary contracts only temporarily delays the displacement of the region’s low-income residents. Affordable housing must be made permanent to have a real impact.
We were also heartened to read the plan’s stated goal to create new rental housing for people earning at or below 60 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) instead of 80 percent, as had been proposed previously. This change will help ensure that lower-income residents will be able to find and maintain housing.
However, this goal alone is insufficient, as many developers have historically and likely will continue to build housing for people at the higher end of that range. As such, the region’s lowest-income residents will remain most vulnerable to displacement. The region should prioritize the construction and preservation of deeply affordable units for residents earning at or below 30 percent AMI in order to avoid escalating this crisis. The ERC recommends including in the plan a goal that sets a minimum percentage of affordable housing for residents at or below 30 percent AMI.
Jurisdictions Need to Commit to Robust, Systemic Investigation and Enforcement of Fair Housing Violations
In order to adequately address the extent of the fair housing concerns detailed in the plan, jurisdictions must proactively and systemically enforce federal, state, and local fair housing laws. It would be ideal if participating jurisdictions would make public commitments to doing so as part of their plan adoption efforts.
While victims of discrimination can individually defend their fair housing rights through litigation or the administrative complaint process, they must not be made to bear the burden of ensuring the region is free from housing discrimination. For many, litigation is not an accessible option. The administrative complaint process, meanwhile, can be a years-long, sometimes re-traumatizing endeavor. As their complaints progress through the process, individual complainants are required to repeatedly relive the discrimination they experienced. Some former ERC clients have found the administrative complaint process to be even more traumatic than the initial discrimination they experienced. Jurisdictions should conduct testing and other systemic investigations and aggressively pursue enforcement of fair housing violations in order to lift this undue burden off of individual victims. The region’s residents deserve to be treated with fairness and respect at the leasing office, mortgage lender, and beyond.
The ERC also recommends that the plan set specific goals for civil rights testing, which is arguably the most effective tool for uncovering and pinpointing systemic barriers to fair housing. At Community Advisory Committee meetings, the ERC was excited to hear that the local governments had committed to conducting testing across the metropolitan area. These commitments should be included in the final plan. Testing serves as a critical tool for identifying more subtle forms of discrimination, such as in the sales and lending market. The report places a significant emphasis on increasing homeownership, but these goals will fail to reduce the racial homeownership gap unless they include a robust campaign to confront sales and lending discrimination against people of color, especially Black homebuyers. The plan should stipulate that participating jurisdictions fund fair housing testing and commit to following through on test results.
The Plan Needs an Implementation Roadmap
One of the greatest disappointments with previous AIs has been the lack of full implementation. Local jurisdictions have devoted significant time and resources into creating this report and identifying goals and strategies for reducing housing discrimination. This commitment cannot end once the report is published, but instead participating entities must double down on effective implementation. To facilitate that, the plan should at least include a roadmap for the further work jurisdictions will need to engage in.
The Regional Fair Housing Plan’s purpose – to eliminate housing discrimination and promote affordable, integrated communities throughout the region – is an essential one. This draft is a valuable first step. The ERC commends the report’s collaborative, regional approach and emphasis on affordable housing; however, we also urge that the final plan include:
- Goals related to building and preserving deeply affordable housing for the region’s lowest income residents, at or below 30 percent AMI.
- Commitments from the jurisdictions involved to conduct fair housing testing and other systemic investigations as part of enforcement efforts to proactively root out barriers to fair housing and ensure that the burden of combatting discrimination across the region does not fall on individual complainants.
- An implementation roadmap to ensure that the time and resources spent and the collaborative framework established in the plan’s creation do not fall apart after it is published. The plan is only meaningful if each jurisdiction involved implements it effectively.
With these changes made, the plan will offer the jurisdictions involved a real opportunity to replace patterns of discrimination and segregation with fair, affordable, and integrated housing throughout the region.
 The participating jurisdictions include the City of Alexandria, VA; Arlington County, VA: District of Columbia; Fairfax County, VA; City of Gaithersburg, MD; Montgomery County, MD; Loudoun County, VA; and Prince William County, VA.
 “Draft for Public Comment: Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice Washington, D.C.” (2019). DC Department of Housing and Community Development, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (PRRAC). https://dhcd.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/dhcd/publication/attachments/D.C.%20Draft%20Analysis%20of%20Impediments%20to%20Fair%20Housing%20Choice%209.27.2019%20%281%29.pdf
 “Fairfax County, Virginia Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2016-2020” (2017). Fairfax County, Department of Housing and Community Development and Fairfax County Office of Human Rights and Equity Programs, Human Rights Division. https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/humanrights/sites/humanrights/files/migration/docs/ai-2016-2020.pdf
 “District of Columbia Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice 2006–2011” (2012). District of Columbia Department of Housing and Community Development. https://ohr.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/ohr/publication/attachments/DC%20AI%202012%20-%20FINAL.pdf
The Equal Rights Center (ERC) — a national non-profit organization — is a civil rights organization that identifies and seeks to eliminate unlawful and unfair discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations in its home community of Greater Washington DC and nationwide. The ERC’s core strategy for identifying unlawful and unfair discrimination is civil rights testing. When the ERC identifies discrimination, it seeks to eliminate it through the use of testing data to educate the public and business community, support policy advocacy, conduct compliance testing and training, and, if necessary, take enforcement action. For more information, please visit www.equalrightscenter.org.
The work that provided the basis for this publication was supported by funding under a grant with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The substance and findings of the work are dedicated to the public. The author and publisher are solely responsible for the accuracy of the statements and interpretations contained in this publication. Such interpretations do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Government.