7 Ways That Racial Equity and Community Development Issues Interact

Last Updated: June 12, 2024

Racial equity and community development issues often intersect. Our purpose here is to challenge you to make sure that both goals advance together.

Many volunteers, activists, and paid practitioners involved in the community development field or in urban planning would describe their daily work as improving neighborhoods inhabited primarily or to a large extent by people of color. Yet, in the broader society, the U.S. experiences wide disparities between white and black Americans in health, wealth, education, housing quality, and neighborhood amenities.

It is time for elected and appointed officials, together with the professionals in planning, community organizing, and community development to do more to explicitly address and indeed help to demolish systems lead to unjust outcomes. Indeed, in some aspects of our work, equality will not be enough; to have true equity, we will need to lift outcomes for all.

Some neighborhood activists actually will need to do more to help eliminate racial and ethnic disparities as well. 

The U.S. is not alone in this problem, although each society presents a little different twist on who is the "in group" and who is the "out group."  Worldwide, black people are taken advantage of. Those of us who have worked extensively with populations of African ancestry know that many communities do not deliver equality of outcome as well as equality under the law.

Sometimes our site visitors have hinted that there isn't much more they can do about racial equity at the local level; they feel that their community development and neighborhood association work already bends toward racial equity. They also think that further solutions must come from better national or state leadership. We certainly agree that a more robust response from national governments is long overdue.

But we set about making a list of areas where decision makers, whether in the public or private sector, can make a difference in racial equity locally. In the U.S. at least, racial disparities have become so acute that those of us who care about community development can no longer confine our racial equity thinking and acting to the topics that are the traditional province of community development work. 

An alarming and videotaped series of police shootings of unarmed black people is leading to a national awakening; the community development field should be emboldened to request new partnerships and demand new funding to impact these seven action items under substantial local control.

Incidentally, the same pressing issues generally apply to Latinx neighborhoods and Native American communities, as well as to other minority geographies worldwide.  If you adapt this page to your own dominant and suppressed groups, you probably will not be far wrong.

Can community development gain new allies from the recent urgency of demands for racial justice?

1. Paint Up, Fix Up, and Clean Up Black Neighborhoods on a Massive Scale

To help African-American households build wealth over generations in the same way that many white families have accomplished that goal, we are going to have to tackle the important role of home ownership in wealth building. If you didn't know, Brookings Institution research shows an average white family wealth (net worth) of $171,000 compared to $17,150 for black families in 2016. Community development initiatives typically encourage home ownership, but for black Americans, this prescription may have been a hollow one. Too often property values have hardly risen over the years and may actually have fallen.

To prevent this result, community development banks, community development corporations, and neighborhood associations need to lobby city government, foundations, and corporations loudly for more funding for home maintenance in predominantly African-American, low-income neighborhoods.

Think of this for a moment. If your home is worth a lot less in absolute dollar amounts than what your parents paid for it,  will you be putting more money into the house to reflect current market trends? Will you be ripping out wildly out-of-fashion but still intact carpeting, wallpaper, popcorn ceilings, shell-shaped bathroom sinks, and walls everywhere? Will you be building garages and more closet space because the housing market pays a premium for these updates? Will you even be doing basic repairs as diligently as you should? We think the answer is probably not, even if you can afford to do so.

Now we add in the impact of households in these neighborhoods who cannot afford even the critical repairs. The result of a combination of rational under-investment and inability to pay for essential repairs equals a neighborhood where housing values stagnate or decline, regardless of the race of the people living there.

This means that African-Americans in a predominantly black neighborhood are not going to reap the full financial benefit of home ownership, and therefore won't be passing along much real estate equity to the next generation. This can happen in a majority neighborhood as well, but it's not as likely.

We would like to see a revolution in the real estate and appraisal industries, but that is not doable for you at the local level. What you can do is make the mixed and minority neighborhoods as attractive as possible and help those with marginal incomes preserve or improve the quality of their housing, raising property values for all.

At the intersection of racial equity and community development, communities need serious and expensive campaigns of helping homeowners who cannot afford to make repairs or hire them done. To do this, they need to assure that every exterior surface in need of paint receives it. Help every homeowner make sure that no structural elements, roofs, porches, or steps are sagging, and that front yards are clean and well maintained. Lead paint removal and functional and safe heating, air conditioning, electrical, and plumbing systems round out the essential repairs. 

When exterior appearance improves through maintenance, owners with the means to upgrade their homes will start doing so. If this does not occur, that is when systematic code enforcement can help.

Also make sure that vacant lots are cleaned up. If you need to establish a vacant property registration program to force disclosure of ownership and contact information for vacant lots and homes, do so. To the extent allowed by your state law, make sure your municipality has the right to clean up derelict properties ("derelict" means "in poor condition") and place a lien on the property to allow eventual recovery of the cost, if laziness is the issue rather than money and health. Use code enforcement to bring people into compliance rather than to punish. 

Talk of liens may seem to contradict what we are saying about generational wealth. That is a good point, but only a very low percentage will not comply even when the funding gap is met and when appropriate coaching and persuasion is adequate. Do not allow those outliers to further devastate already unfairly low property values.

We say this racial equity imperative is within local control, but it is not easy because new funding sources will be required in most cities. It is imperative that communities orient this particular program to communities with high percentages of non-white population, if it is to meet the goal of reducing the wealth gap, even though large rehabilitation expenditures in other neighborhoods can be justified for other neighborhood stability and revitalization reasons.

Community leaders and professionals, this one is right in your area of expertise, and you can make progress on it while national attention is focused on racial equity. The broader community does not share your perspective on the depth of this problem, so help them visualize it. Come up with some snappy infographics to compare the cost of this work with the cost of incarceration, building stadiums, or whatever else may be topical in your city at the moment. 

Even the most aggressive and well-administered program for housing repair in low-opportunity neighborhoods will not make a sufficient dent in the gap between black and white families in terms of wealth generated by selling the family home though.

For that, we need residential integration. This leads to our next topic.

2. Enact Provisions and Requirements for Mixed-Income and Inclusionary Zoning

In communities that support any housing construction at all, your zoning ordinance can provide a direct link between racial equity and community development. To appreciate this, we need a very brief spotlight on how the place in which a person lives influences life chances and therefore reaping the benefits of the entire society and economy.

As summarized by Lincoln Quillian of Northwestern University, living in a poor neighborhood as a child is correlated with less educational attainment and lower earnings as an adult. Adults living in low-income neighborhoods experience less health and happiness than those in middle-income neighborhoods. He concludes that living in poor neighborhoods is an important factor in racial inequity and multi-generational poverty. (Source: "Neighborhood and the intergenerational transmission of poverty," Focus, vol. 33, No. 2, Spring/Summer 2017.) 

For other insight into the impact of economically segregated neighborhoods, we turn to Patrick Sharkey's book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and The End of Progress toward Racial Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2013). African-Americans who are ages 13-28 now are eleven times as likely as young whites to live in concentrated poverty neighborhoods, which he defines as more than 20% poor. Those numbers are 66% African-American compared to 6% white, as shown on p. 27.  Further illustrating our points about generation-spanning poverty, he finds that 48% of black families have lived in poor neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to 7% of whites (p. 39). And 67% of black families from the poorest one-quarter of neighborhoods one generation ago still live there (p. 38).

We think these linkages are so strong that mixing of incomes should actually be required during the development approval process. No, that is not practical in the case of a small subdivision or a small multi-family building, but assuring that larger developments include a range of housing prices can go a long way toward helping with racial equity in terms of equal access to the potential for housing appreciation.

This brings us to what has been common practice in the U.S., especially in days when the Community Development Block Grant was better funded. Often new housing projects targeted to low-income occupants have been situated in low-income neighborhoods. We understand the appeal of cheaper land prices, and we know that the legislation mandated a large percentage of expenditure in target areas. But the end result has been situating a substantial amount of affordable housing in low-opportunity neighborhoods where jobs, networking with people who have jobs, and quality schools were lacking. This is exactly why we have alluded to racial equity and community development advancing together in the title of this page. We have to do better.

As an aside, this is not to say that we should never build in current low-income neighborhoods. But if we build for-sale housing in such places, it is critical that the projects be of such scale that the neighborhood can be transformed. Otherwise, black and white families that might occupy the housing will not receive much benefit from home equity appreciation.

We have to point out that changing your zoning ordinance basically costs zero, in contrast with repairing homes.

But what is required may be even more difficult to come by than money: it is a large measure of political will to do better in terms of racial equity, and the resolve to tie together racial equity and community development, along with day-to-day city planning decisions. 

For more information on how to do this, see our pages on mixed-income housing and inclusionary zoning. Don't let property rights fanatics insist that every developer has the right to make every last penny possible by building higher-income housing, regardless of the impact on racial, ethnic, or religious minorities. Don't let people of either race predominate with their loud argument that African-Americans prefer to live in all-black neighborhoods (although some may), and that somehow that preference is at risk if you have mixed-income areas of the community. Just continue to reiterate that providing more mixed-income neighborhood choices is a matter of racial equity because we don't want black property values to be suppressed due to the fact that an entire neighborhood is the object of discrimination. (By the way, we are not insensitive to the need for amplifying black voices and for preservation of the many valuable aspects of black culture, but we just think those are so admirable that they will survive even with some white people around.)

A new requirement that almost all new developments of any size should be required to serve a mix of incomes could be accomplished through judicious use of accessory dwelling units and clever designs that combine larger and smaller housing units on the same lot in unconventional ways. So if your city has the courage, enact an inclusionary housing ordinance or chapter of your zoning code to help further racial equity in housing and neighborhood quality. 

When new comprehensive plans are written, conscientious city officials, community leaders, and city planning consultants should address racial equality with fierce determination and throughout the plan, rather than in a separate small chapter about social issues.

Let us set up every incentive and every requirement that new developments accelerate the production of mixed-income housing. To do anything less is unfair.

If you need to educate public officials about the historic role of governmental laws, regulations, agencies, and structures in reducing opportunity for home equity building among black homeowners, this article provides a summary of racial discrimination in housing.

3. Erase Discrimination in Levels of Government Service

Most cities and city council persons would say there is no racial, ethnic, religious, or economic discrimination in quality and quantity of city services if they asked in a public forum. However, privately they will admit that either that is not true, or that they don't really know if it is true.

In most places, racial equity hasn't yet caught up with city services. If you think that isn't the case in your city, take an extended tour and also ask an impartial entity such as a university or a consultant to interview residents about what services they actually receive. People who want to apologize for the fact that more affluent neighborhoods receive better city services than others often say things like "we respond to all complaints about poor service." They say, "People didn't complain, so we didn't think about checking the street light bulbs as often over here as we do over there."  (If you think this example is silly, take a long drive after dark to see what you find.)

Really we don't think that is a good excuse for a lack of racial equity. 

In one mind-blowing instance we saw recently, leaders of black residents did not even realize that a city provided vacuum pickup of autumn leaves raked to the curb, which was a routine service for mixed and white neighborhoods. Planning commissions, neighborhood associations, and city or town councils need to get out and look for themselves, as well as finding an outside source such as a university or trusted nonprofit to ask the residents about the quality and types of services they receive. 

Cities and towns need to do better at making sure that trash removal (and complaints about missed collections), street conditions, sidewalk existence and conditions, park maintenance, utility maintenance, noise ordinance enforcement, mosquito spraying, drainage structure maintenance, replacement of missing street signs and stop signs, painting of traffic lanes, recreation center maintenance, and any other services are really equal in quality. Notice that we didn't say equal in expenditure; we said equal in quality. That means a commitment on the part of city government to replacing missing stop signs and street lamps, even if one neighborhood has considerably more vandalism than another.

Once we have racial equity in level of city services, the city government doesn't look nearly as hypocritical when it tries to impose racial equity-related requirements on private developers and community development entities.

4. Make Sure Property Does Not Become Abandoned

A further way that racial equity and community development interrelate follows from the low housing values in many minority neighborhoods. Often African-American and other minority families do not make wills or set up trusts to specify clearly how their major asset, their home, will transfer to the next generation. This might be due to mistrust of the legal system or the mistaken notion it is extremely expensive to have a will written. Since life expectancy can be substantially lower for African-Americans, we suspect some of the problem also lies with people in their sixties who die prematurely. 

We have written more about this problem at our page on heir properties. When heirs either fall into a dispute about the property or when none of them is seriously interested in maintaining the often low-value home,and if the property is perceived to be difficult or impossible to sell,  it can fall into dismal disrepair. This then reflects negatively on surrounding property values. 

Money and professional help, which some attorneys might be willing to donate, can help residents of African-American neighborhoods have a clear document for handling their estate. Make sure that a program sponsored by your city or neighborhood association is realistic about property values, because if your program drafts wills that split a property five ways, but yet the property will not sell for enough money to cover the costs of a sale, you will still have a problem. In lower-value neighborhoods, attorneys need to try to persuade homeowners to draft wills that force a quick sale if there are several heirs, none of whom wish to buy out the others and occupy the home.

You still may end up with some owners who don't care and who turn their backs on the property, but the odds are that at least you will have one point of contact for your code enforcement and persuasion efforts.

5. Encourage Speaking Up on Racial Equity Impacts of Community Development

It's too easy for those who volunteer and work in the community development field, whether in local government, community development corporations, neighborhood associations, or booster organizations, to applaud any and every new housing development, business park, or strip mall. Construction gives these groups their bragging rights.

Yet we all know that often community development projects sidestep the issue of residential integration, some measure of which in our opinion is essential to better outcomes in racial equity in education and employment especially. Other projects are likely to immediately or eventually lead to gentrification and driving out lower-income neighbors, especially racial minorities. Racial equity is such a pressing issue that it needs to be part and parcel of everything we do in the community development field for the foreseeable future. 

I am a bit tired of the conversation from foundations, now echoed by the organizations they fund, about a "racial equity lens." The implication is almost that we could apply a different lens on a different day, such as maybe a sustainability lens or a gender lens. No, we need racial equity front and center every day and on every project.

Let's not allow community development to proceed on the basis of business as usual, building new housing in trendy neighborhoods, even if those happen to be city neighborhoods in cities with high minority populations.  Let's allow the market to meet that type of housing demand without our valuable tax or non-profit subsidy. Let's reserve our subsidies for the needs we described above that are harder to meet, such as the need to lift up a disinvested neighborhood by painting, fixing porches, patching roofs, installing energy-efficient furnaces, and fixing bad drainage and plumbing while we are waiting for the market in neighborhoods where African-Americans live to resurrect themselves or improve to the point that households are willing to invest.

For more thoughts on equitable real estate development, see a good paper by the Local and Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity, entitled Equitable Development as a Tool to Advance Race Equity. (If you work in local government, poke around elsewhere on that website too for many great ideas.)

6. Meld Racial Equity and Community Development Together Through Including Food Security in Development and Neighborhood Stabilization Projects

Folks, the coronavirus pandemic pointed out to many people that buying and even producing some of our food close to home could be a good idea. But if you are African-American and living in a black neighborhood, you may not have many options for grocery shopping. If you have one grocery store in the neighborhood, you consider yourself lucky. In other neighborhoods, there are zero full-service grocery stores, and instead you may be buying bread, chips, cakes, and soda at the gas station or convenience store until you can make a much longer trip to a grocery store.

These places are called food deserts because nutritious food is very scarce there. Recently there have been some feeble attempts to increase the nutritional value of foods available at small-scale corner stores, convenience stores, and gas stations, but the occasional little bowl of apples and bananas is not going to be an adequate supply of nutritious choices.

The poor nutritional value of foods available in many "minority majority" neighborhoods can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart conditions, and these of course are the contributors to the drastic disparity in life expectancy we see in some American metro regions, where just a four or five mile difference between zip codes an lead to life expectancy disparities of 15 to 20 years.

While we are a fan of community gardens (see our start a community garden page), that is not the solution everywhere. Sometimes community development entities and developers have to invest more to assure the availability of a grocery store, a farmers market, or an alternative such as a mobile grocery truck that appears one or two days a week.

Those who approve projects also need to consider making food security a criterion. In the planning and community development fields, we often say things like low-income housing should be on a transit line. Why shouldn't high-density housing and affordable housing be within a certain radius of a fully-functioning grocery store?

While you're thinking about health disparities, remember to see that healthy food outlets and other amenities in community development projects can be reached by active people-powered transportation to promote exercise. See our walkable communities and bikeable commnities pages for tips about how to make that happen. Pedestrians and bicyclists actually provide street activity that can be helpful in crime reduction and raising consciousness about the need and opportunity for community beautification projects, as well as the opportunity for better health.

7. Address Education Inequities As Part of Local Housing Initiatives

We include kindergarten through 12th grade education in our discussion of the ways you can enhance racial equity through community development at the local level, despite the fact that many of you will think education is far outside the realm of community development. And despite our expansive definition of community development, in general we would agree.

We are not writing comprehensively about educational quality or outcomes, but it seems certain to us that housing patterns, which lie squarely within the scope of community development, have a major impact on black children and therefore on racial equity. Below is our chain of thought.

1. Other things being equal, attending a neighborhood school is far better for elementary school children than attending one far away. Neighborhood schools mean more opportunity for school-neighborhood partnerships and civic education, shorter commute times for students, potential for walking or bicycling to school, and easier access for busy parents to the school. 

2. But since the 1954 Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. has recognized that separate schools are inherently unequal. However, we still have mostly separate schools in many cities. Richard Rothstein describes how social and economic disadvantage, especially what he calls the isolation of black students, lowers black children's school performance. (Read The Racial Achievement Gap: Segregated Schools and Segregated Neighbrhoods A Constitutional Insult article from the journal Race and Social Problems, vol. 6, no. 4, December, 2014.) He cites Gary Orfield's studies showing the share of black students attending schools that are more than 90% black actually rose from 34% in 1991 to 39% in 2011.

Therefore, logic tells us that we need to strive toward integrated neighborhoods in order to reach integrated neighborhood schools in order to attain better and more equitable educational outcomes.

Let's keep working on that, friends in community development. Quit conceiving of well-intentioned community development projects that will further residential racial segregation. Make sure that locating poor people in a high-opportunity neighborhood actually happens.

We're leaving the policing and justice system issues regarding racial equity to other pages on this site. If interested in these topics, see our crime prevention section, especially pages on community policing, trust in police, and court monitoring. Before you start getting all angry, we don't think lip service to community policing without action is a good thing, we don't think trust in police should be automatic and unquestioned, and we don't think court monitoring is any substitute for judges who really understand the impact of crime on a community without pressure from the neighborhood. It's just that these important criminal justice system topics belong in their own section of this site.

We also are leaving aside a very substantial possible complaint you might have about this page. You might say that simply addressing inequality, which is what equity really means in this context, isn't enough. You could correctly point out that white people in the U.S. don't have enough health care access, quality education, and economic and wealth-building opportunity either. We sympathize with this argument. For more on this topic, see john a. powell's excellent introduction to what he calls targeted universalism, shown on one of the videos from the San Francisco Federal Reserve's conference on community reinvestment. That's the purpose of the rest of this site!

The topics below also relate to racial equity issues and solutions, as do many other pages of this website, for that matter. 

  1. Making and Keeping a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Community Challenges, Common Topics & Concepts
  4.  › Racial Equity and Community Development

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