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Shall we overcome? The negative impact of gas prices on jobs and housing choice

money-gas tank2Recently, the New York Times ran an editorial on “fair housing.” Its content portrayed a nation at risk concerning housing resegregation. According to the Times, minorities now face fewer choices when looking for housing in the suburbs because of the absence of strong, fair housing laws and the lack of enforcement of current laws on the books. For me, the Times’ story brought back memories of the stirring, hopeful and emotional civil rights-era anthem, “We shall overcome!” It also brought back my own experience as a tester, with respect to housing discrimination, and my later involvement in efforts to strengthen fair housing policy at the U.S. Department Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and training real estate salespersons and brokers to sell to minorities, while dean at the University of Colorado.

A bit of history: After WWII, discriminatory practices were often overt and blatant. Builders, brokers, bankers, homeowners and public officials found reasons and ways to impede housing sales to minorities and low-income households in mostly white areas in the growing American suburbs and urban sprawl surrounding American cities. Racist zoning, refusal to finance mortgages, refusal to show empty units or pre-construction empty lots were some of the key impediments to the American Dream for far too many minorities and, many times, low-income households. As a result, would-be black, Latino and low-income white homebuyers were denied the ability to recapture income from housing appreciation in growing areas.

Through appreciation, affluent and white families were able to pay for their kids’ college education through the purchase and resale of their homes — choices not open to many minority or lower-income white families. Limited housing choices restricted black, brown and sometimes low-income white families to older, deteriorating areas of American cities and the ghetto or barrio areas for minorities. Children of poor families — white, black or brown — were required to attend failing schools. Poor healthcare, higher costs for food and other basics, increased crime and inferior public transportation often tracked low-income, one-race communities. They made life difficult for residents and kids.

While racism in the housing market still exists, America has made progress. Minorities, particularly middle- and upper-income minorities, who can afford the price, have been able to increase their housing choices throughout most metropolitan areas. Laws on the books are aimed at eliminating discrimination and opening up housing choices for minorities.

But the nation still has a long way to go before it meets the goal of the 1949 bipartisan housing act to seek a “decent home and a suitable living environment” for every American family. Housing costs and income stagnation remain obstacles for low- and moderate-income families, irrespective of color. Add residual racism to the mix, and less than affluent minorities still have a very tough time entering the housing market. Very few scholars and practitioners have looked at gas costs as a barrier to housing choice and the American Dream. But they are barriers! Gas prices have become a serious variable limiting housing and neighborhood choices for the least advantaged — moneywise — among us, including a proportionally large share of minority households. Contrary to public perceptions, vehicle ownership is now readily available to most low- and moderate-income households, including minorities. Isabel Sawhill, a highly regarded policy analyst from The Brookings Institution, reported that in 2012, 80% of households with annual incomes below $50,000 owned vehicles. She noted that in 2010, when prices per gallon hovered at around $2.80 a gallon, low- and moderate-income households spent about $1,500 on fuel per year. Further, each dollar increase in gasoline (holding miles driven constant), would cost these households an extra $530 a year. According to many observers, increases in gas prices during 2014 constituted as much as 10-15% of the total income of low-income folks.

Sawhill and others suggest that low- and moderate-income households will adjust to higher costs of fuel by cutting back on other basics. To some extent, the inelasticity of price demand among the poor and the near-poor, concerning the purchase of gas, results in reduced expenditures for needed goods and services, including transportation. Higher gas prices limit the distance that low- and moderate-income households can, or are able to (in light of budget constraints), travel to secure jobs (or better jobs) and to access improved housing opportunities. Going back to Sawhill, “rising gas prices produce a level of hardship for a group that is already suffering from higher levels of unemployment and stagnant or declining real wages.” The cost of gas has and will remain a key civil right issue.

David Leonhardt et al. recently reported in The New York Times that data from a massive 100-city study indicates that children who grow up in some cities and towns have a greater chance to escape poverty than children who grow up in other cities. The ability of households to move from bad neighborhoods to better ones, from bad communities to better ones, makes a visible difference in the lives of their children and their children’s future income.
Household mobility is a key variable. The quality of neighborhood and community for low-income folks is important — very important-with regard to the quality of their lives and the lives of their children. Raj Chetty from Harvard, one of the authors of the study, suggests, “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter…”

Clearly, more analysis is needed to determine the precise relationship between mobility, locational change, race, education and family stability. Just as clearly, we now know that increased housing and job opportunities are critical to the ability of poorer households to improve their quality of life and environmental conditions. But the negative link between rising gasoline costs and mobility impedes the ability of low-income families and their children, whatever their skin color, to achieve their American Dreams. The link, if it remains, will test our nation’s willingness to expand and sustain housing and job opportunities for those other than the more affluent among us.

Oil companies and their franchisees are not practicing racism or income discrimination when they attempt to play with and set prices that limit competition at the pump. Indeed, most company leaders and franchise owners are color blind, except for the color green. Through monopolistic restrictions or economic Viagra and monogamous relations with franchisees, they try their best to limit consumer choices concerning alternative fuels and, as a result, generate higher costs for and profits from their favorite fuel — gasoline.

Cheaper fuels would provide lower- and moderate-income families with an increased ability to seek decent jobs and housing in decent neighborhoods and communities. Added to fair housing reform and enforcement, America could begin to overcome de facto housing segregation and extend job choice and job mobility. Breaking up oil monopolies at the pump, combined with initiation of competitive open fuel markets and increasing the numbers of FFVs should be part of the civil rights agenda in the 21st century. The result will be lower fuel prices and a quantum leap in opportunity for many disadvantaged Americans. Paraphrasing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “I have a dream”…and “we shall overcome!”