Tulsa, Oklahoma

Equitable Housing Policies & Affirmative Action Bans: A Housing Solutions Collaborative Update

"We know the challenges of producing and preserving affordable housing are significant, and attempting to address those challenges within the context of systemic racism requires intentionality, collaboration, and data to center the needs of people."
Jonathan Butler
senior vice president of community development, Partner Tulsa

ChangeLab Solutions’ Housing Solutions Collaborative (HSC) is a year-long learning cohort that convenes cross-sector housing teams in eight small to mid-sized cities across the United States. The primary goal of convening these teams is to confront conditions that impede housing equity in their communities. The HSC provides the teams with technical assistance and a shared foundation for collective problem solving. Read on to learn more about the innovative work pursued by the HSC team in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Tulsa’s Housing Inequities

In nine US states, the state legislature has banned state and local governments from using affirmative action criteria in public education, public employment, and public contracting. Such bans significantly restrict local policymakers and advocates who are tackling social issues and inequities rooted in racism and systemic discrimination, requiring them to find creative approaches. These changemakers must ensure that their policies and programs affect the root causes of pervasive inequities and that their efforts prioritize residents with the greatest need, all while complying with state law. The Housing Solutions Collaborative team in Tulsa, Oklahoma — a Midwest city of approximately 400,000 people — is doing exactly that in their efforts to address the region’s affordable housing needs.

Like residents of many US cities, individuals and families living in Tulsa face a variety of pressing challenges related to availability and stability of affordable housing units. According to Princeton University’s Eviction Lab, Tulsa has the eleventh-highest eviction rate in the country. Nearly 35,000 Tulsa tenants, or 46% of all tenants, are cost-burdened, meaning that they spend more than 30% of their income on housing costs. And in 2021, 83.2% of renter households in Tulsa earning less than $35,000 per year were cost-burdened by rent; in the same year, only 14.2% of renter households earning more than $35,000 per year were cost-burdened — a clear indication that housing affordability in the city disproportionately affects low-income households.

Black Tulsans who applied for home mortgages were 2.5 times more likely to be denied than white applicants in Tulsa.

Tulsa’s stark housing inequities are also discernable between other population groups. The 2020 Tulsa Equality Indicators report found that eviction rates were 50% higher in majority non-white neighborhoods than in majority white neighborhoods. The report also found that white Tulsans are nearly twice as likely as Black Tulsans to own their own homes. And a 2020 analysis of publicly available data under the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act found that Black Tulsans who applied for home mortgages were 2.5 times more likely to be denied than white applicants in Tulsa. With stark racial inequities like these characterizing Tulsa’s housing landscape and Oklahoma’s affirmative action ban preventing policymakers from tackling inequities head-on, affordable housing advocates and officials in Tulsa need specialized tactics to promote housing equity.

Meet the Tulsa HSC Team

The HSC team from Tulsa, Oklahoma, comprises representatives from Partner Tulsa, the community development office for the city; the Tulsa Planning Office at the Indian Nations Council of Governments (INCOG), which administers the zoning and planning processes for the City of Tulsa and unincorporated areas of Tulsa County; and TEDC Creative Capital, a financial institution that provides loans and education to small businesses:

  • Franchell Abdalla, re(BUILD) director, TEDC Creative Capital
  • Jonathan Butler, senior vice president of community development, Partner Tulsa
  • Simone Downs, community development specialist, Partner Tulsa
  • Kristin Maun, director of housing development and incentives, Partner Tulsa
  • Emily Scott, neighborhood revitalization planner, Tulsa Planning Office

In their work together, the Tulsa HSC team has focused on preserving and increasing production of affordable housing through pre-existing housing initiatives in Tulsa. These initiatives include the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, the city’s Vibrant Neighborhoods Partnership, and other community-based and private-sector endeavors. ChangeLab Solutions staff members have provided the Tulsa team with technical assistance in support of their projects to boost housing affordability, particularly in regard to advancing housing equity while complying with Oklahoma State Question 759, the preemptive state law that prohibits affirmative action in government activities.

"We know the challenges of producing and preserving affordable housing are significant,” says Jonathan Butler. “Attempting to address those challenges within the context of systemic racism requires intentionality, collaboration, and data to center the needs of people in decision and policy making.”

"Our efforts to boost the number of affordable units and undo Tulsa’s harmful legacy of racism in housing depend on compliance with State Question 759."

Recently, ChangeLab Solutions delivered a comprehensive memo delineating legal and policy design considerations for advocates to keep in mind as they confront racial housing inequities in Tulsa. The memo covers federal laws under the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses as well as the Fair Housing Act that limit how state and local governments can focus their efforts on “suspect classification” population groups — for example, groups delineated by race and gender. Furthermore, the memo explains how the Oklahoma state law essentially covers the same bases as federal law and additionally prohibits the few narrow exceptions to federal law. The memo concludes by offering suggestions and case studies on how governments can use race-neutral metrics to allocate their resources and programs equitably.

“Our efforts to boost the number of affordable units and undo Tulsa’s harmful legacy of racism in housing depend on compliance with State Question 759,” says Kristin Maun. “ChangeLab’s assistance and memo helped us gain a better understanding of the tools and levers we have at our disposal.”

Advancing Equity in Compliance with Oklahoma State Law

If state and local governments generally cannot consider race when using programs and resources to help residents who have been affected by inequities and discrimination, what types of race-neutral metrics can policymakers use in policy and program design? The answer is for policymakers to use other population data that allow policies and programs to ameliorate inequities in the most direct way possible. ChangeLab Solutions suggests using criteria like disparities in health outcomes between geographic areas; socioeconomic status; and preferred language to ensure that resources are directed to communities with the greatest need.

Other options for race-neutral metrics that can serve as a basis for equitable programming and policymaking include awarding government contracts to businesses or small businesses that were not previously awarded grants or “banding” applicants for grants (i.e., grouping similarly qualified applicants and treating them as equivalent rather than ranking applicants individually). Whichever metrics policymakers choose to use, they must be able to document non-discriminatory reasoning behind the categories they select.

The Tulsa HSC team is exploring next steps in their efforts to align their affordable housing initiatives with the requirements of State Question 759. With the memo from ChangeLab Solutions in hand, the team has been connecting with government agencies in other jurisdictions that have taken similar approaches to using race-neutral metrics in their policy and program work. The team has also conducted analyses to determine what race-neutral metrics might best overlap with Tulsa’s racial inequities in housing.

“Our most recent city-wide initiative is the Just Home Project, which aims to break the link between incarceration and housing instability for Tulsa residents,” says Maun. “All of the information that we’ve obtained from the Housing Solutions Collaborative and ChangeLab Solutions about race-neutral housing metrics will greatly help us with program design considerations.”

Beyond their work on housing equity in compliance with State Question 759, the Tulsa team has also been honing their skills in strategic case making — a concept introduced to the team members by Dr. Tiffany Manuel, president and CEO of TheCaseMade, an organization “dedicated to helping leaders powerfully and intentionally make the case for systems change.” Dr. Manuel gave a keynote address that outlined the core principles of her strategic case-making approach at the 2021 HSC Summer Convening, which was attended by Tulsa team members. The team has been putting that approach to use in the outreach and engagement efforts they are directing toward community members and affordable housing stakeholders in the Tulsa area. Moving forward, the Tulsa team hopes to put into action the strategies and information they gained from the HSC as they take steps toward their long-term goal of delivering affordable housing to Tulsa residents.

As part of the HSC learning cohort, HSC housing teams will continue to receive support and technical assistance from ChangeLab Solutions as they pursue their policy goals. Learn more about the other cross-sector teams in the cohort and the housing policy approaches they’ve advanced.

By Patrick Glass & Cesar De La Vega


Photograph by Mick Haupt, "a yellow line on the side of a road," on Unsplash