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Building Access from the Ground Up

Fair housing expert says harmful policies must undergo a major renovation.

Rappaport Senior Fellow in Residence Danielle Kinkel  

BC Law’s Property and Housing Law Week kicked off on March 20 with a community address delivered by Danielle Kinkel, general counsel at the Massachusetts Housing Partnership. The talk, entitled “Undoing Past Policies: Building Equitable Access to Homeownership,” explored how decades of discrimination and failed policies created some of the highest levels of housing inequality in generations.

A graduate of Northeastern Law, Kinkel worked in private real estate for nearly a decade at Nolan Sheehan Patten, a boutique law firm focused on community development. In 2018, she moved to the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, a quasi-government nonprofit organization that works to address the affordable housing needs of communities across the Commonwealth. The week of her presentation, she served as a Senior Fellow in Residence with the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy, which sponsored her talk.

Kinkel began by underscoring the urgent need for affordable housing in Massachusetts. Years of steady growth were halted by the COVID-19 pandemic; for the last three years, Massachusetts has actually shrunk in population.

“We’re seeing a new kind of affordability brain drain that threatens our economy and affects who we can hire, who teaches our children, and who contributes to the taxpayer base,” Kinkel warned. As the cost of homeownership rises in Massachusetts, many priced-out residents have begun to look elsewhere for cheap, accessible housing options, while other New England states like Vermont and Rhode Island, have seen relatively rapid growth, in contrast.

“The only way to heal these disparities is to intentionally make race-based and class-based policies.”

Danielle Kinkel

The lack of affordable housing tends to most severely impact communities of color, and particularly Black Americans. Kinkel related a personal anecdote from her time in law school, when her property professor began a discussion about restrictive housing covenants in the United States. The professor pointed out a particularly egregious example of housing discrimination in Grosse Pointe, Michigan—Kinkel’s hometown, of all places—where prospective homebuyers were ranked by their nationality and the “swarthiness” of their skin.

Grosse Pointe, a suburb of majority-Black Detroit, is overwhelmingly white, a product of white flight during the 1950s and 1960s. Until that lecture, Kinkel—who, it should be noted, is half-Filipino—had never realized why her neighborhood looked so homogenous. Policies instituted by the Federal Housing Authority, for instance, had ensured that the most valuable real estate was segregated.Valuators were tasked with identifying whether compatible racial groups were present, she said, the thinking being that if the area were to remain “stable” and a good investment, the homes had to be occupied by members of the same race. The revelation inspired her to pursue a career in affordable housing, in part to correct the wrongs of the past.

Kinkel pointed to several proposed solutions, but reiterated the need for a multi-pronged approach. She highlighted the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, currently under consideration by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as a step in the right direction. The rule would mandate that the agency—and any real estate developers that receive federal funding—take a more proactive approach to fighting segregation and increasing access to affordable housing.

“Research shows us that the only way to heal these disparities is to intentionally make race-based and class-based policies, because different households need different offerings to achieve homeownership,” Kinkel summarized.