Connecting state and local government leaders
COMMENTARY | Government leaders must translate racial equity from an aspirational value to specific, tangible operating principles. Recent affordable housing efforts offer valuable examples of equity in action at the local level.
Racial equity has always been an undercurrent in economic mobility work. Economic opportunity – defined broadly as access to jobs, living wages and financial security – differs vastly for white and nonwhite Americans, thanks to centuries of policies designed to achieve that very result.
As our colleagues Jennifer Park and Anjali Chainani noted in Results for America’s work on City Budgeting for Equity & Recovery, “Now, in a time of heightened concerns about both economic inequities exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and broader racial justice, interest in equity factors is growing among public-sector leaders.”
Racial equity can’t just be an interest among leaders. It must be an explicit goal in all public service delivery – something leaders name, work toward and measure against. Leaders must start by moving past a broad definition of equity to a clear, shared articulation of what it looks like in practice for their jurisdiction.
The Urban Sustainability Directors Network defines equity across four pillars:
- Procedural equity: Engagement and representation in the design and rollout of programs and policies.
- Distributional equity: Fair distribution of benefits and burdens across all communities, appropriately prioritized.
- Structural equity: Active recognition of the historical injustice that created the status quo and the institutionalized accountability needed to repair it.
- Transgenerational equity: A path to lasting equity across generations.
As part of the What Works Cities Economic Mobility Initiative, we saw firsthand how Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka applied these pillars in their efforts to address affordable housing and advance racial equity. Below are valuable lessons they learned that can be applied to any local government.
Procedural equity: Procurement and design practices can deepen community engagement
Procedural equity is “inclusive, accessible, authentic engagement and representation” – in other words, making sure the people most affected by policies will help shape them.
As part of a multifaceted approach to housing stability, Newark, New Jersey’s Office of Affordability and Sustainable Housing designed an affordable housing portal to make it easy for residents to find housing. Using feedback from beta testers, the agency created a human-centered platform on which 60% of users found housing options in 15 minutes or less.
In Detroit, officials worked with the Government Performance Lab at Harvard University to build procedural equity into the Detroit Housing Network’s procurement practices. The big shift involved moving from a prescriptive approach to one that supports codesign with credible community-based organizations. “Rather than the city putting out a request for proposals that says, ‘here is the model,’ they said, ‘here is the goal,’” says Kate Mertz, GPL’s assistant director.
With a stronger procurement process in place, the Detroit Housing Network initiative secured an additional $1.5 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding and an additional $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Distributional equity: Exploring data to see problems and potential solutions more clearly
The USDN defines distributional equity as “the fair distribution of both the burden and benefits of any given program or policy across all segments of a community, prioritizing those with the highest need.”
Data disaggregation, which breaks data down by race, ethnicity, gender, zip code, etc., is a vital tool for any local government working toward distributional equity. It can counteract the biases and perceptions that perpetuate the status quo by exposing the cold facts of racism and inequity as they play out in communities everywhere.
Data disaggregation doesn’t stop at race and ethnicity; a project’s needs can define different subgroups for analysis. The Rutgers University Center on Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity authored a report that:
- Established a Newark median affordable rent based on the median income of renters in Newark, not the median income of all Newarkers. This shed light on the needs of the subpopulation most vulnerable to eviction.
- Broke down available affordable housing stock by studio, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and three-plus bedroom units. This revealed the greatest gap in Newark’s affordable housing: affordable units for larger households.
- Showed the distribution of rent burdens, revealing disproportionately high rents in the North, West and South Wards.
Structural equity: Internalizing and institutionalizing the work
As the CLiME report states, “Housing instability concentrated among the Black and Latino residents of an impoverished city sitting like an island in a region of white affluence reflects structural inequalities long in the making.”
Newark’s and CLiME’s unflinching transparency about the city’s state of housing, and the deliberate policy choices that created it, is a strong example of structural equity at work. It also allows city officials to make decisions with full recognition of the historical, cultural and institutional dynamics that have routinely benefitted some groups at the expense of others.
Local governments must look back with open eyes to look forward to a more equitable future.
Transgenerational equity: Setting future generations up for success
Transgenerational equity means “decisions consider generational impacts and don’t result in unfair burdens on future generations.” In some ways, improving economic mobility is an exercise in transgenerational equity. The work we have done with Detroit and Newark to create stability and opportunity for current generations opens even more doors for those who follow.
Structural racism is the status quo. It will self-perpetuate unless we meet it with clear intention. Equity should be named in the design and build of projects, tracked against disaggregated data and communicated transparently along the way. Doing so moves it from the abstract to the real—and that’s where it matters.
Jen Tolentino is a director of Local Practice at Results for America. Sophie Bergmann is a manager at Results for America.
NEXT STORY: New York Lieutenant Governor Arrested