During the past couple of months, I have heard a number of newcomers to Pittsburgh say how shocked they were to find a region so segregated.
While census data from the past 30 years indicate some signs of increasing diversity, we still remain a region deeply divided. In 1980, the average white person in the Pittsburgh metro area lived in a census tract that was over 95 percent white. In 2010, that same white person lived in a tract that was about 92 percent white.
Even as their percentage of population in the region has declined, as a group, whites remain very isolated. Blacks in our region, on the other hand, are living in more diverse settings. In 1980, the average black person lived in a census tract that was over 55 percent black. In 2010, that number dropped to under 41 percent.
The lie of "separate but equal" was exposed decades ago, but the tragic effects of racial separation in Pittsburgh persist. A recent report by the Urban Institute shows significant racial disparities in the region across a range of indicators from income to homeownership rates to school testing scores. The report gave Pittsburgh a failing grade.
Researchers with the "US 2010" project show that whatever their personal circumstances, black and Hispanic families on average live at disadvantaged neighborhoods.
For the Pittsburgh metropolitan statistical area, the report showed that middle-income and affluent, non-white households all tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than their white counterparts. Affluent blacks live in neighborhoods where the median household income is lower than that of neighborhoods where poor whites live, and non-white households -- whether poor, middle-income or affluent -- tend to live in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates than their white counterparts.
An acute lack of diverse communities in our region is no accident or simply a matter of personal choice. Segregated neighborhoods are products of public policies as well as the result of discriminatory housing practices by real estate agencies, mortgage lenders and private housing providers.
Transforming our segregate landscape remains an imperative, but creating diversity will not be easy. Here are three broad strategies that can help.
1. Spending public funds in ways that encourage integration. The millions of federal dollars that Pittsburgh and surrounding counties receive to fund housing and development are required by law to be used in ways that "affirmatively further fair housing." It is not enough that these jurisdictions not discriminate. They have a positive obligation to use funds to create diverse and inclusive communities. We must know how, and more importantly, where funds are being spent and ensure that projects are not perpetuating segregation, but rather open up real opportunities for inclusion.
2. Combat housing discrimination. A fundamental barrier to diversity is discrimination. For too many people, the choice of where they want to live continues to be limited by discriminatory practices. It is imperative that private groups and government agencies support vigorous enforcement of our fair housing laws. Community education is critical as well. Housing providers must understand their obligations. Home seekers must understand their rights.
3. Expand housing choice. One of the principle reasons that race and poverty remain concentrated in our region is a lack of housing options for low and moderate income families in high quality neighborhoods. One way to shift this paradigm is through inclusionary zoning policies that would obligate housing developers to include a percentage of affordable housing units in their developments. A number of jurisdictions across the country have successfully adopted such zoning practices. Another tool for expanding choice is the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8). Vouchers provide some assistance to those with limited resources to access units in the private rental market and the chance to move to neighborhoods where they are more likely to succeed.
Wouldn't it be great if in 10 years newcomers to our region would be surprised by our vibrant and inclusive neighborhoods? To get there we have to work both to eliminate barriers to diversity and use policies that promote it.
Peter Harvey is executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership of Greater Pittsburgh.
First Published August 9, 2012 12:00 am