It may not have anything to do with Donald Trump or Confederate flags, but the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s announcement to modify rules and release new data covering integration and segregation with regard to fair housing practices is important news, and a necessary and inventive approach for combating systemic racism and inequality.
HUD will provide publicly open data “on patterns of integration and segregation, racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, disproportionate housing needs, and disparities in access to opportunity.” The new data will provide local officials with valuable information to combat segregation in their communities and to create housing policies that will do so.
But of course not all local officials will just look at these data and decide to fix things, so there’s an enforcement side to this as well: Armed with the new data, HUD will be able to withhold funds from grantees who do not meet these new requirements.
In response, congressional Republicans have threatened to deny funding for its implementation, and, in the same way many states have chosen not to take the Obamacare Medicaid money, some municipalities have decided to forgo HUD funding because of their refusal to comply with the fair housing mandates. Yet despite the inevitable blowback from communities that are stuck in their ways, and proponents of small government, this decision should be viewed as a landmark step in fighting the evolving face of racial discrimination in America.
“I think the data is going to give us some new indicators. The face of housing discrimination has probably shifted,” said Steve Glaude, the executive director of the Coalition for Nonprofit Housing and Economic Development. “The data will give us ‘what’s the new look of discrimination.’ What’s the face? Where are its eyes, and nose, and ears today compared to where those things were in times past?”
The housing fight has shifted from the known bigoted intent of housing practices of old, when African Americans were regularly denied loans, directed toward predatory loans, or barred from buying homes in certain areas due to unofficial covenants amongst white home owners, and more. Now, the emphasis focuses more on the impact of the policies, and the awareness of communities about their racial disparities, and not nearly as much on the hate filled intent of others. This showcases progress in the right direction, but also highlights how much progress still needs to be done.
For example, the neighborhood where I live in Washington, DC at one point had an unofficial covenant among white home owners that they refused to sell to blacks. That is a thing of the past, and at one point my area was predominantly black. Yet presently, my neighborhood is going through a significant wave of gentrification, and many black residents are being forced out of the neighborhood. The first iteration obviously denied housing and opportunity of black Americans due to racial motivations. The current one does not, yet the diminishing opportunities for minorities remain.
“It is obvious when gentrification comes that the many people coming in do not understand that people are being displaced, and generally what we would expect of people is that they would want these neighborhoods to be diverse,” said Maurice Jackson, Georgetown University professor and chairman of the DC Commission on African American Affairs. “The response has to be to creating mixed neighborhoods.”
Therefore, combating racial injustice without necessarily a racist intent has become the main aspect of these HUD regulations, and none of this would be possible without the Supreme Court’s recent decision on the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
The focal point of the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last month in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project is the codifying of “disparate impact.”
Disparate impact states that a policy may be considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” against any group based on race, national origin, color, religion, sex, family status, or disability. The key distinction here is that the discriminatory practices are not determined by the intent of the violator. The impact and not the intent of the actions is what matters most, and that is what makes the availability of HUD’s data so valuable.
In the Court’s decision, the Inclusive Communities Project argued that “disparate impact” was in effect when the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs distributed tax credits for low-income housing because the state’s formula ensured that the housing was primarily built in poor, minority neighborhoods and rarely in more affluent white suburban ones. This resulted in people receiving housing in environments with weak communities, high crime rates, poor access to public transportation, poor schools, and few employment opportunities. The class and racial divisions remained under this formula, and would only become more pronounced if we kept with this policy.
The remarkable impact of this decision, and HUD’s new policies, is that countless American cities function under similar formulas. Low-income housing developments are rarely found in middle- to upper-class neighborhoods, and most areas can point to a part of their city where the crime rate is high, low-income housing exists, the schools are bad, and the job opportunities are low. These areas are commonly dominated by minority residents.
The aim of these recent developments is to break the vicious cycle of creating an America of “haves” and “have nots.” Our society has always been structured in a way to ensure that there have been these two groups. To break this cycle, and acknowledge the significance of disparate impact, HUD is releasing troves of data that local officials can use to formulate plans to address segregation and racially concentrated areas of poverty. The new policy is not accusatory, but is enlightening and should build a better awareness for government officials and city residents about how their communities can foster diversity instead of perpetuating enclaves of disparate levels of opportunity.
HUD and the Obama Administration are choosing to fight inequality and opportunity gaps in housing and community building by providing stakeholders with more information, working with communities to create strategies to address areas in need, and holding grantees accountable. Fighting injustice through togetherness is a step in the right direction, now we must commit to working together so that progress can continue to be made.