An Unfinished Agenda

Why it's time for fair housing and community development to reunite to fight the vestiges of segregation.

Fair-housing organizations and advocates should refocus their advocacy on the systemic problem of institutionalized discrimination and segregation, including initiating litigation based in case law regarding the appropriate role of the Fair Housing Act in promoting integration and dismantling segregation In ACORN, et al v. Garden City, et al, for example, a recent case filed in New York State under the Fair Housing Act and related civil rights laws, a local community organization is challenging a historically white city’s pattern and practice of excluding affordable housing in order to keep out people of color. The case involves a nonprofit seeking to develop an affordable-housing site, along with individuals who would like to reside in the affordable housing once it is built. The suit recognizes that allowing overwhelmingly white communities to engage in land-use practices that exclude low-income people of color is as unacceptable as refusing to provide services to a overwhelmingly minority community.

Those working in low-income communities of color no doubt know that the conditions which residents face often are the result of systemic and structural imperatives that were begat by legally imposed segregation. For this reason, they should be bolder in using litigation and other forms of race-based advocacy to obtain resources and remedy for those communities. Municipal-services cases filed by legal-services and civil-rights advocates during the 1970s and early 1980s documented the conditions in the minority community involved that were the result of conscious and deliberate governmental action to deprive them of the support and services that existed in areas where whites lived. (See Hawkins v. Town of Shaw, 438 F.2d 1286 (5th Cir. 1971), aff’d en banc, 461 F.2d 1171 (5th Cir. 1972); Johnson v. city of Arcadia, 450 F. Supp. 1363 (MD.Fla. 1978; Dowdell v. City of Apopka, 511 F. Supp. 1375, aff’d in part, and rev’d and remanded in part, 698 F. 2d. 1181 (1983).)

More recently, litigation in Dallas on behalf of a minority neighborhood led a federal court to conclude that “…The sordid history of the City’s decision making process regarding racially-segregative zoning and related policies, when viewed in conjunction with the discriminatory effects of zoning decisions, industrial nuisances, and landfill practices, offers substantial circumstantial of evidence of discriminatory intent.” (See Miller v. City of Dallas, 2002 WL 230834, N.D.Tex. 2002.)

Litigation and administrative advocacy initiated by the National Fair Housing Alliance and its affiliates on the issue of property insurance and lending discrimination has effectively used the Fair Housing Act to address the effects of segregation on the opportunities afforded both individuals and communities. Those cases, and related advocacy efforts, reveal how resources that are essential to stable, healthy, and prospering neighborhoods and communities have been withheld from minority communities by private business enterprises because of the predominant race of the areas’ residents.

Finally, in a recent case, Kennedy, et al v. City of Zanesville, et al, a black community in Ohio is suing under the Fair Housing Act and other civil-rights statutes for the decades-long refusal of the white-controlled governmental entities of which they are a part to run water lines to the Coal Run Road area. The facts reveal that members of the community, located just outside the City of Zanesville, were relatively organized and worked for years to get the various governmental bodies involved to extend water lines to Coal Run Road. However, it was not until the black residents hired legal counsel and filed a discrimination complaint in 2002 based upon the Fair Housing Act that the governor’s office stepped in and convened a meeting of all concerned to address the issue. Coal Run residents finally received running water in early 2004. The pending lawsuit, which seeks damages, is instructive of the role that effective race-based legal advocacy can play in effecting remedy for a longstanding pattern and practice of discrimination in the way a minority community has been treated in the context of provision of public services (or lack thereof).

Community development organizations should harness gentrification efforts rather than oppose them, by being open to greater racial and economic inclusiveness that protects and insures current residents a continued place in the community and at the decision table. Recent Shelterforce articles (“The Purchase of a Lifetime” and “A Winning Campaign,” Spring 2007) about residents’ fight to stay in a gentrifiying Washington D.C. neighborhood and a community embracing inclusionary zoning as a means to respond to gentrification underscore the difficulties of learning to “live together” in the wake of neighborhood change, but they also reveal the possibilities for a positive outcome.

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Elizabeth Julian is president of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Texas-based nonprofit that works for the creation and maintenance of racially and economically inclusive communities. She served at HUD in the Clinton administration and has practiced poverty and civil-rights law for more than 30 years.

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