Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Equity is More Than Just a Buzzword

Invoking the word "equity" is a lot like talking about Heaven.  Everyone likes to describe it, but nobody seems to do what it takes to get there.  Or worse yet, the word gets tossed around with no meaning whatsoever.  It's become the trendy thing people have to say they want.  And yet I struggle to find any meaningful incorporation of its principles into actual policy.  When it does make its way into political decisions, equity seems to be applied only to giant, broad initiatives like raising the minimum wage or anti-bullying legislation.  When the word is bandied about at community meetings, it doesn't seem attached to any specific actions at all. 

To me, putting equity into practice means being intentional about closing gaps based on race, gender, class, and other barriers.  For instance, Minnesota consistently ranks near the nation's top in home ownership rates (currently #3) and yet we are also near the top when it comes to the gap between white and minority home ownership rates.  Applying a lens of housing equity to a project like redeveloping Penn Ave N would raise this question:  the Penn Avenue redevelopment initiative is likely to add more rental units than home ownership units through its rehab and new construction efforts.  In context with Minnesota's home ownership gap, what does an equitable Penn Avenue plan look like when it comes to housing?  Or are there other initiatives that should be coordinated with the Penn Avenue redevelopment as a result?

Equality tends to be the end result of large or statewide proposals.  I submit, however, that equity...

...is much more the cumulative result of many smaller choices compounded on each other.  Every time a housing violation is overlooked in a rental property, those already disenfranchised are put at more risk.  Equitable transit isn't just about big ticket items like light rail, it can be accomplished by something as simple as more bike lanes or a continuous bus route along Broadway Avenue.

So it bothers me to no end when "equity" gets invoked at neighborhood meetings with no real discussion about what that means in the context of a particular project or how it might actually be accomplished.  And I'm also put off when I see leaders and elected officials who have a chance to make real impacts on equity and they whiff on those opportunities.  One such whiff happened not too long ago at 3112 3rd Ave S.

The long and the short of the story is this:  A historic house in the Healy district was found to have unsafe levels of lead, particularly with the windows.  The family, a Latino household who didn't have much in the way of funds to deal with the problem, was at risk of lead poisoning.  They were, however, constrained by the limits of historic appropriateness for the area.  Fixing the windows in a historically-appropriate way was, by some estimates, far more expensive than to rip out and replace.

So they went before various city bodies to get the proper variances, had those granted, and then someone in the community appealed on the grounds that the proposed work did not meet design standards.  Well here's IN-equity in action, right?  The easy narrative here is that a poor, minority family suffering from effects of lead were effectively held hostage in their own home by richer, white home owners.  Even I winced when I heard an appeal was filed, for these very reasons.  And for the record, as I search through city agendas, websites, and various links, the documentation there seems to support the end result.  But I have heard a different story from enough trusted friends and colleagues, and have testimony from council hearings, to give voice to it here.

But again, making real impacts on equity often means going deeper into the issues.  It turns out that the people who filed the appeal went the extra mile and found a way to make preservation come in at the same cost as ripping out and starting new.  An African-American-owned company was recruited to do the necessary millwork, and a Latino-owned company could have done the repairs and could have communicated with the family in their first language.  The historical integrity of a home could have been better preserved without putting a family at risk of lead poisoning, and less housing debris would have wound up in a landfill.  (The hypocrisy of trying to become a "zero waste" city through recycling pop bottles while tearing down houses is a topic for another day.)  Moreover, the initial proposal would have required the family to move out while parts of the work were completed, and the appeal would not have had the same need.

The end result here was that a family's home was made lead-safe.  And that's a net gain any way you cut it.  But the way the city council arrived at that end was not the best, or the most equitable, way to get there.  And at every council hearing there are numerous actions big and small that can tip the scales of equity to one side or another.  Will we see those scales tilting in the right direction?  Or will we be so caught up in the equity buzzword that we don't even notice?


  1. Equity is a feelgood word with no bite because since when is home ownership a right? Look what happened the last time that logic was implemented into practice and we tried to let everyone own a home.

    1. I don't agree that home ownership is a "right," although where was that brought up?

      And if you're referring to the mortgage meltdown, I have read report after report that indicates that enforcement of the community reinvestment act did not cause lenders to issue bad loans to lower-income and minority borrowers.

  2. Anon, for someone who bandies about 'logic', I'd expect more of it in your own argument.


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