Congress may end rule supporting Fair Housing Act

Townhouses at Walnut Terrace in Raleigh, which opened in 2015, has 292 townhouse, houses and apartments. Just less than half is traditional public housing with the rest leased at market rates, from $775 to $1,100 per month.
Townhouses at Walnut Terrace in Raleigh, which opened in 2015, has 292 townhouse, houses and apartments. Just less than half is traditional public housing with the rest leased at market rates, from $775 to $1,100 per month. ehyman@newsobserver.com

During the second presidential debate, candidate Donald Trump lamented the concentration of crime in majority black inner cities, promising: “I will be a president for all of our people. ... I’ll be a president that will turn our inner cities around.” Now Trump’s party plans to erase the information necessary to achieve that goal.

If it becomes law, H.R. 482 (or S.103), the “Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017,” will nullify the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2015 regulation requiring recipients of HUD funding to “affirmatively further fair housing.” That regulation, carries out the goals of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, passed in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

HUD’s regulation made progress remedying the historical damage done by zoning laws. The proposed legislation will reverse the course of that progress. Since the early 1900s, zoning practices segregated neighborhoods by race and deprived African-Americans of wealth and economic mobility.

As millions of immigrants and African-Americans arrived to work in newly industrialized cities, factory owners saw the potential threat posed by solidarity between low-wage “native born” whites (first-wave immigrants), and black and immigrant workers. To facilitate the racial division, industry leaders fanned the flames of white “nativist” protectionism by using blacks and immigrants to compete for jobs and break strikes. Meanwhile, news media depicted black people as dangerous criminals, embedding racial divisions in our national culture through the use of fear.

The geographic reality of the “divide and conquer” strategy was achieved through housing practices like blockbusting and redlining. Through those practices, real estate and financial institutions, in concert with the Federal Government, systematically increased property values in white neighborhoods at the expense of black residents. Local governments used zoning practices to locate black neighborhoods near industrial and polluting facilities, away from parks and commercial centers. Although in 1917, the Supreme Court struck down Louisville’s explicitly racial zoning ordinance, other non-explicit mechanisms accomplished the same discriminatory purpose. Ordinances excluding multi-family dwellings, restrictive covenants, segregated public housing, steering and red-lining and other practices blanketed the country.

This was no secret conspiracy; the Federal Housing Act of 1937, the Homeowners Loan Corporation, the banking and real estate industries all ensured that black families would be geographically isolated and deprived of the opportunity to accumulate wealth, while their white peers enjoyed affirmative action in everything from employment to federally-funded mortgages and college tuition. In the years following World War II, the suburbanization process that created much of America’s white middle class wealth was underwritten by explicitly racially segregative and exclusionary federal housing policy.

The practice of racial redlining led to rioting. In 1968 a national commission to study the causes of racial violence and unrest charged: “What white Americans have never fully understood, and what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it.”

The divisions created by these policies, and the resulting racial violence, ignited the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the last piece of civil rights-era legislation, aimed at remedying individualized housing discrimination and eliminating ghettos. Only in the last four years has that second goal – to promote diverse, inclusive communities and overcome the legacy of discrimination – come within regulatory reach.

In 2013, HUD recognized that the “Fair Housing Act not only prohibits discrimination but ... directs HUD’s program participants to take steps proactively to overcome historic patterns of segregation, promote fair housing choice, and foster inclusive communities for all.” The agency’s rule gives states, local governments, and public housing agencies data on a range of factors, including patterns of integration and segregation; racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty; access to education, employment, transportation, and environmental health. These data, and the accompanying geospatial mapping tools, help decision makers eliminate segregated neighborhoods.

Despite the toxic effects of housing segregation, H.R. 482 and S. 103 would make willful blindness to racial inequity and discrimination an official policy: “(N)o federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize or provide access to a federal database of information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing,” declares the section following the nullification provision. This proposed legislation erases valuable information that state and local governments need in order to comply with the Fair Housing Act. It seeks, quite simply, to blind us from truth.

Elizabeth Haddix is senior staff attorney at UNC Center for Civil Rights. Jack Holtzman is a senior staff attorney at the N.C. Justice Center.