Baker News March 21, 2019

Policy Challenge Finalist Spotlight: FHAIR

by Jose Altamirano

Fighting Back Against Housing Discrimination to Expand Affordable Housing

Kellen MacBeth (MPM ’20) serves as the Chair of Arlington’s Tenant-Landlord Commission. This position gives him greater insight into a problem affecting the DMV region and many other metropolitan areas across the country: affordable housing. Rising rent costs displace families, while discrimination in the private markets effectively reduces the supply of affordable housing available to those in need. Kellen and Michael Pruitt (MPM ’20) are entering the Policy Challenge to pitch FHAIR, their solution to rental discrimination in Arlington County. The proposal includes a series of cost-neutral changes to existing policy, including the prohibition of discrimination based on a person’s source of income, the expansion of a state tax credit program, and engaging with key stakeholders through regular forums. Read more about FHAIR below:

Describe your proposal in 140 characters or less.
FHAIR aims to end housing discrimination against renters relying on government assistance and increase affordable housing in Arlington, VA.

How has your proposal changed between the start of the Challenge to now?
The core of our proposal has remained fairly consistent, but the way we interpret and present the benefits has changed a lot as our research efforts shed new light on the topic. We started the project looking at housing discrimination mainly from a moral perspective: discriminating against people for receiving government subsidies is wrong and should be stopped. We thought of benefits beyond that as secondary and didn’t focus on them as much. As we spoke with more stakeholders and dug into the data, though, we realized that we had a big opportunity to actually expand the number of folks benefiting from affordable housing at the same time without costing the county a dime.

What is the biggest challenge you face in addressing the problem you seek to solve?
Time, easily. In addition to school, both of us work full-time and try to have some sort of social life. The dozens of meetings with elected officials, county staff, and nonprofit staff required creative scheduling and a lot of commitment. Additionally, conducting the research, reading through all of the available literature, and then working with stakeholders to further refine our proposal took up even more time. We think it’s definitely worth it, though.

Is there anything new you have learned about crafting policy through participating in the Challenge?
The biggest impact of the Challenge was in ramping up our schedule—without a looming deadline, it’s easy for these types of initiatives to drag on forever, never really coming to fruition. We are now on schedule to complete most of the implementation by the end of this summer and that may not have been the case if not for this competition. It also forced us to develop a more polished proposal that has become a more replicable policy solution. Initially our sole focus was on Arlington County and the competition helped us devise a policy solution that can more easily be picked up and tailored to another community facing similar issues. We’ve already begun thinking of some other communities in Virginia and Maryland that we’d like to speak with once it has been fully implemented in Arlington.

What inspired your proposal?
Kellen has served on Arlington’s Tenant-Landlord Commission since 2017, becoming Chair in January. He had been looking into housing discrimination in Arlington based on some books he read and source of income discrimination seemed like the type of policy initiative that fit Arlington’s progressive values well and could actually make an impact. Michael pitched the idea of entering the Public Policy Challenge and became very enthusiastic about tackling the issue of source of income discrimination once he heard about the work Kellen had already begun. It seemed like the type of policy solution that almost looks commonsensical once you get past some of the more wonky aspects of the rental assistance programs.

Say your solution is implemented/funded/approved. How would you define success after 5 years?
I think we would define success in a number of ways. The first being that recipients of government rental assistance like Housing Choice Vouchers and Housing Grants are no longer denied housing based solely on their legal source of income. Beyond that, any families receiving rental assistance that move from rent-capped affordable units to market rate units would be a huge success. Each family or individual moving into market rate housing frees up additional rent-capped affordable units for another family in need. Expanding the total number of households served by existing affordable housing programs, whether voucher-based or project-based, would be a very exciting result.

How does your proposal account for market externalities, like Amazon’s HQ2 move?
It’s difficult to completely account for unknown factors or market externalities but the core of our proposal would remain unaffected. Once the legal source of income discrimination ban is passed and enforcement begins, vulnerable populations will face one less barrier to safe, decent, and affordable housing. Amazon HQ2’s impact on development and rental costs in Arlington will certainly play a role in the mechanics of affordable housing but it won’t change the need for landlords to treat recipients of government rental assistance (who are also disproportionately members of protected classes) the same as they would treat any other renter.