Winchester Grove Apartments (formerly known as Highland Creek) is a 446-unit apartment complex in Whitehaven that has received affordable housing tax credits for its ongoing renovations. Photos by Andrea Morales for MLK50

One of the values we embrace at MLK50 is equity. It’s an ethical value, one that’s core to the idea of justice, and in my view, governing.

It gets conflated with other things a lot, so indulge me and let me define it in simple terms. Equity is when people get what they need to thrive. That’s different from equality, when everyone gets the same thing. Equity acknowledges that everyone doesn’t start at the same place. Some people have been underserved or underrepresented, so giving them the same thing as people who haven’t does not make things equal. 

So, for instance, it’s great to give a group of students a full-ride scholarship to Vanderbilt. But if you don’t account for the fact that some of them may have attended schools that didn’t have advanced placement courses, some of them may have parents whose education stopped at high school, some of them may need to work part-time jobs to pay for books … well, you haven’t thought through what it really takes to succeed at a university.

The difference between equity and equality comes up in the latest story our housing and development reporter Jacob Steimer wrote as he continues looking at how Tennessee administers its low-income housing tax credits. Ralph Perrey, the executive director of the state’s housing development agency aims, he says, to ensure “fair distribution.” While he’s led the agency, it has shifted more credits to rural areas.

I don’t mean to argue that affordable housing isn’t needed in rural areas. Of course, it is. But by choosing to ignore the population and poverty rates in Shelby County, in the interest, as he says in Jacob’s story,  of giving every county an equal shot, the director is depriving the people who need this housing the most. He’s thinking in an all-things-being-equal way in a world where that doesn’t exist. And I have to wonder if the majority race of those needing affordable housing in areas  “rural” or “country” was reversed with those living in areas “urban” or “city,” whether Perrey would have different thinking. An equity mindset might help push him past such blind spots.  

In truth, this shouldn’t be a discussion at all. Housing should be readily available and accessible to everyone, and in this wealthy country, it can be. While we wait for that understanding to emerge, let’s remind our leaders that the road to equality starts with equity. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at

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