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Castro: In America, geography has consequences

Julian Castro

Where you live matters. A child born today in the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood in St. Louis can expect to live 18 fewer years than a child born just 10 miles away in Clayton. Why? Because poverty presents obstacles that, too often, prevent families from getting ahead no matter how hard they try.

Imagine you are a child growing up in a struggling community. Your parents might not be able to find good jobs because local businesses are hurting and there aren’t any public transit options that can connect them to the other side of town. Your family can’t afford quality housing so your apartment is full of hazards that are making you sick, resulting in more time in the emergency room and less time in the classroom. You aren’t allowed to play outside because the local playground isn’t safe from crime, impacting your health and well-being.

A ZIP code should never prevent people from reaching their aspirations. That’s why the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has taken an important step to promote greater access to quality, affordable housing for all Americans. We published a final rule updating the process by which local communities use HUD funding to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing — a key provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

When this landmark law was passed 47 years ago, it boldly declared that all Americans deserve an equal chance to access safe, affordable housing near quality schools, transportation and jobs — no matter who they are, what they look like, how they worship or where they are from. As part of this effort, the Fair Housing Act required local governments and states that receive HUD funding to use it to promote fair housing and expand access to opportunities. That’s why we’ve published this rule, to simplify that process and provide better partnership to local leaders working to put opportunity within reach of every resident they serve.

In this age of limited resources, communities are often operating without the data and tools they need to chart the landscape of opportunity in their area and craft locally tailored plans to achieve their goals.

HUD’s new effort will provide these resources. It will empower mayors, county officials, and community members with publicly-open data and tools to eliminate the barriers that block many Americans from getting ahead in life. As a former mayor, I know how valuable these resources are for communities.

During the pilot phase of this effort, local leaders in the Twin Cities region used the information to plan investments in housing and infrastructure where they are needed most. In Chicago, transit agencies are expanding service between high-poverty neighborhoods and job centers. In upcoming years, cities across the nation will be able to use these tools to ensure that every family’s destiny is determined by their effort and talent, not by where they were born.

Ensuring that all American families can live where they choose isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was sponsored by senators from both political parties. It’s an American issue.

We all win when children, regardless of background, get the chance to become a doctor, an entrepreneur, a teacher or whatever their dreams may be. We all lose whenever those dreams are deferred or derailed because their family is stuck in poverty.

It’s time for leaders from the public, nonprofit and private sectors to come together for a common goal: expanding access to opportunity. Together, we can and must ensure that all Americans have the chance to reach their full potential and, by reaching it, make the 21st century another American century.

Julian Castro is secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.