President Obama unveils major new rules under Fair Housing Act targeting racial segregation

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits overt discrimination in housing practices — protections that, while not extended to LGBT Americans at the federal level, are seen as routine and noncontroversial when it comes to race.

However, the law directs the federal government to go one step further, to not only prohibit discrimination but to actively take steps to mitigate it.

Today, the Obama administration is announcing rules that aim to do just that. From The Washington Post:

The new rules, a top demand of civil-rights groups, will require cities and towns all over the country to scrutinize their housing patterns for racial bias and to publicly report, every three to five years, the results. Communities will also have to set goals, which will be tracked over time, for how they will further reduce segregation.

“This is the most serious effort that HUD has ever undertaken to do that,” says Julian Castro, the secretary of the department of Housing and Urban Development, who will announce the new rules in Chicago on Wednesday. “I believe that it’s historic.”

The Department of Housing and Urban development has also not ruled out withholding funding from localities where the most flagrantly segregated housing patterns — and with the least progress made in reducing inequalities — are seen.

Housing discrimination, via Creative Commons

Housing discrimination, via Creative Commons

While conservatives worry that the rules amount to social engineering, the rules won’t coerce communities to force white people out of homes and give them to non-white residents. Instead, arguably the most significant element of the rules is the relatively modest step of simply beginning to compile more comprehensive data to identify where problems exist. Currently, HUD relies on publicly available data on race, poverty rates and concentrations of public housing gathered by the Census. However, according to the Post, the agency hopes that new, more complete and more focused data on race and housing will allow it to “more clearly track where poverty and segregation overlap, where housing voucher recipients live relative to good schools, which neighborhoods contain no affordable housing at all.”

All of this is based on the premise that, in many communities, major inequalities are being glossed over for the simple fact that the data are either incomplete or easy to ignore.

And it’s not as if our current segregation is subtle by any stretch of the imagination. Our cities are essentially as segregated today as they were when the Fair Housing Act passed. As the Post notes:

In Chicago and many cities, the racial lines drawn by history are largely the same ones that exist today. Black-white segregation in metropolitan Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York has budged only modestly in 40 years. Within the city of Chicago, white flight has meant that many once-white neighborhoods have become predominantly black. But over half a century starting in 1960, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson identified just one neighborhood in the entire city that transitioned in the other direction.

These patterns have persisted in spite of the Fair Housing Act in large part because of the failure of the law’s proactive mandate to “affirmatively further” fair housing.

The administration’s new rules come less than two weeks after the Supreme Court upheld the use of the disparate impact test to evaluate claims of housing discrimination. In a ruling that has implications for other forms of discrimination, such as ballot access, the court held that one need not prove explicit discriminatory intent in order for a policy to be discriminatory as long as the policy can be shown to cause unequal outcomes. In other words, you don’t need a tape recording of a banker saying “I won’t loan to black people” in order to show, with appropriate data, that their bank isn’t loaning to black people.

While “redlining” isn’t official bank policy any more — as the Fair Housing Act explicitly prohibits it — there’s reason to believe they still do it, just informally. That’s what these new rules are designed to catch.

The data collected by HUD under these new rules could therefore be used by plaintiffs in housing discrimination cases to show racial discrimination that they may currently be unable to outline.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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3 Responses to “President Obama unveils major new rules under Fair Housing Act targeting racial segregation”

  1. Jon Green says:

    Where he’s had the authority, Obama’s acted on LGBT housing discrimination. It’ll take a federal law or court ruling — which he would support — to fully ban the parctice: nationwide:

  2. Indigo says:

    Poor Barry, he’s got a long way to go to figure out who is entitled to equal protection. He needs to think about it again. Maybe even get to know and hear from gays folks beyond the cocktail circuit so popular with that fund-raising crowd over at HRC.

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