Last month marked the 49th anniversary of the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act, the last and most far-reaching of the civil rights acts legislation adopted in the 1960s. The FHA was designed not merely to remedy past discrimination, but as its leading sponsor explained, to create “truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”
Given this goal, reaffirmed countless times by the Supreme Court, and the relationship between wealth and race in our state and nation, it was exasperating to read the May 9 news article “Neighbors organize to block Habitat plan to build in Cary.”
Professor Jon Powell said, “Housing lies at the very heart of a system of institutional relations that reproduce inequality.” Residential segregation is the hub around which a broad range of racial and economic impacts turn. As The Inclusion Project of the UNC Center for Civil Rights has shown, racially excluded communities often lack access to high-performing schools, basic services like public water and sewer, paved roads and trash pickup; opportunities for safe and affordable housing; and an adequate voice in local government. With the related lack of economic development or investment, these communities then become targets for unwanted and hazardous uses, like landfills or polluting industrial sites.
The FHA recognizes these broad impacts of residential segregation and was specifically designed to address them. In fact, it goes far beyond prohibiting discrimination and imposes an affirmative obligation on cities and towns to pursue policies and practices that produce racially integrated neighborhoods. Such practices and policies specifically include the rezoning sought by Habitat that would allow it to develop affordable homes on Trimble Avenue in Cary.
In the almost 50 years since the passage of the FHA, opponents of integrated housing policies have learned to temper the tone of their advocacy, relying on coded phrases that the proposed affordable housing “just doesn’t fit with the neighborhood” or will “change the character of the community.”
Given the woefully inadequate supply of affordable housing in Cary (1 percent of all its housing, ranking last in Wake County), and in an effort to compromise with neighbors, Habitat repeatedly scaled back the project by 60 percent, from 23 attached homes, to 15, finally to just nine single-family detached homes. But apparently even nine low-wealth families are too many for the neighbors.
Even assuming the residents are primarily motivated by perceived economic impacts of affordable housing, we must recognize that the correlation of race and poverty in North Carolina implicates the FHA. And notably, our state Fair Housing Act makes this link expressly, prohibiting discrimination based on “the fact that a development or proposed development contains affordable housing units for families or individuals with incomes below 80 percent of area median income.”
As cases from Texas and Westchester County, N.Y., made clear, the law requires more than just making housing available. In both instances, affordable housing was being constructed, but it was concentrated in existing low-wealth and minority neighborhoods. Such actions, courts held, entrench the continuing disparities in all the above-mentioned secondary impacts related to such segregation and violate the FHA.
Efforts to keep affordable housing out of Cary, which will have similar discriminatory impacts on the folks that need such opportunities, are similarly suspect. The town council should keep its affirmative duty to further fair housing at the forefront when it considers Habitat’s proposal and remember that the FHA was intended to put an end to “the present outrageous and heartbreaking racial living patterns which lie at the core of the tragedy of the American city and the alienation of good people from good people because of the utter irrelevancy of color.”
Mark Dorosin is the managing attorney, and Elizabeth Haddix is a senior staff attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights.