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Cutting Back on Civil Rights

Terry H. Schwadron

Jan. 11, 2020

What with issues of war and impeachment trials pending, you, like me, might have missed notice that the Trump administration is scaling back on fair housing and civil rights enforcement.

Today, or this week, the administration is redefining what it means for local government to meet fair housing obligations — all while cloaking the change in support for individualism and lower housing prices for some.
Apparently, we shouldn’t be noticing that this is a change that favors housing developers over renters or that further strangles efforts towards desegregating neighborhoods. But despite the language used by the Department of Urban Development (HUD), this is a move to protect white neighborhoods.

The new rule, first disclosed in The Washington Post last week, eliminates the need to address barriers to racial integration and encourages cities to remove regulations that stand in the way of affordable housing. The Obama-era regulations had required communities to take meaningful action against long-standing segregation by analyzing housing patterns, concentrated poverty and disparities in access to transportation, jobs and good schools. The recipients were then required to create fair housing goals. The Obama administration estimated that the rule would cost local entities $25 million a year and HUD $9 million annually.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson calls those processes “overly burdensome” and “too prescriptive,” saying that transforming segregated living patterns and poor neighborhoods into areas of opportunity is often not within a community’s control. Advocates for fair housing say the rule reduces financial pressure on local governments to end racial residential segregation, as prescribed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.


There is a pattern to such rule changes. Carson has promoted policy changes to reduce public housing admissions, as well as rules raising the bar for proving housing discrimination, barring families with any undocumented immigrant residents from public housing and weakening protections for transgender people in homeless shelters.

Carson has criticized federal efforts to desegregate American neighborhoods as “failed socialist experiments,” adding last spring in testimony before Congress that it “costs a lot of money and man hours to do that (segregation) analysis.” He signaled that he intended to focus on building affordable housing across all communities by deregulating and easing zoning restrictions.

The Post said that these new rules focus on increasing what the administration is calling “fair housing choice” — through greater housing supply along with safe and sanitary housing conditions that HUD says will better allow families to live where they want — rather than racially integrating communities. The New York Timesdescribed the rule as simply saying people should live “where they choose, within their means, without unlawful discrimination related to race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability.” No mention of segregation appears in the new definition.

The proposed rules, which will be published in the Federal Register ahead of a 60-day public comment period, come two years after Carson suspended the 2015 rule requiring more than 1,200 communities receiving federal housing dollars to draft plans to desegregate their communities — or risk losing billions in federal funds.

Fair housing advocates unsuccessfully sued HUD in 2018 over what they characterized as its failure to enforce fair housing laws. HUD then withdrew a computer assessment tool that provided data and maps that could be used in measuring neighborhood segregation.

So, where Obama administration officials had thought the point of fair housing legislation was not only in controlling rent, but getting at racial segregation behind rent pricing, the Trump administration basically favors a free market to create competition, with no responsibilities towards racial factors.


Opposing statements have abounded. “The proposed rule entirely ignores the essential racial desegregation obligations of fair housing law,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition. Thomas Silverstein, a fair housing attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said “discrimination and segregation will continue unabated when HUD doesn’t provide meaningful fair housing oversight of local governments.”

The housing agency also wants to rank communities based on housing costs and fair market rents, and give top performers priority for federal housing grants. The administration says such incentives would bolster the availability of affordable housing. But Silverstein said it would punish high-cost coastal cities with great housing needs — areas that are less supportive of Trump — and reward smaller, cheaper ones.

Ah, politics.

The principle of Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing was put in place five decades ago to prompt communities and public housing authorities that receive federal funds to address the harmful effects of their historical actions, noted Lisa Rice, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “There is an inextricable link between race, place and opportunity. The fact is that communities of color disproportionately do not have banks, do not have grocery stores, do not have basic infrastructure or equal access to municipal services and amenities like sewer lines and paved roads.”

In an opposing opinion for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Emily Hamilton and Salim Furth wrote: The old “rule cannot achieve housing affordability or accessibility nationwide, it cannot undo decades of segregationist housing policy, it cannot even guarantee that every HUD grantee is using best practices. But, inherent limitations and all, it is a positive step toward a healthy and accountable relationship between HUD and the cities and counties that receive HUD grants.”

HUD has not released its annual fair housing report since 2017, but the National Fair Housing Alliance said the number of housing discrimination complaints rose 8% percent in 2018 over 2017, the highest increase since 1995.

Individual responsibility and free markets or government-sponsored rules to enforce an end to residential segregation? You choose.


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