HUD Secretary Ben Carson and His Perverse Actions on Fair Housing

Two men sit on a stoop with signs during a fair housing protest in Seattle, Washington, in 1964.
A fair housing protest in Seattle, Washington, in 1964. Photo courtesy of Seattle Municipal Archives, CC BY 2.0

Enacted on April 11, 1968, just one week after Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the act was a landmark piece of legislation aimed at moving the fair housing agenda forward. It sent a clear signal that discrimination in housing was no longer legal in the United States and it offered the hope that eventual changes to the law would make it stronger and easier to enforce.

In particular, enforcement of the Fair Housing Act was weak, violations in the law were hard to prove, and there were almost no penalties for non-compliance. In addition, since a case had to be brought forward by the aggrieved party, the process was not only time-consuming and likely costly to the household, but the possibility of financial compensation was limited, even for a successful outcome. And, all a household really wanted was a decent, affordable home, not a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the Fair Housing Act was far better than no legislation at all. Beyond its symbolic importance, the law gave government officials the power to investigate claims of violations and it served as an important reminder to both those implementing federal housing programs, and private landlords, that their actions were subject to federal interest and possible scrutiny. Overt discrimination in housing was no longer officially permitted; old ways of doing business were no longer OK.

For example, under the Fair Housing Act it is not OK to assign an African-American household to a particular public housing unit because that racial group predominantly occupies that development. And it is not OK for a private landlord or rental agent to simply deny a nonwhite household an apartment solely because of their race. And it is not OK for a seller of a home to refuse to sell to qualified buyers because of their race. And it is not OK for the price of a home or apartment to be different for potential buyers or renters, depending on their race. And it is not OK for a mortgage lender to deny a loan on the basis of the applicant’s race or the neighborhood in which the home is located. In other words, the Fair Housing Act identifies various types of discrimination and makes them illegal.

The Fair Housing Act also directed HUD to affirmatively further the federal goal of fair housing. In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the act provides protections to minority groups, even if policies or specific actions did not have an explicit intent to violate the law. Fueled by this ruling, the Obama administration promulgated new guidelines to “affirmatively further fair housing.” In order for state and local governments to receive HUD funding, they would have to submit an assessment of their progress in addressing “significant disparities in housing needs and in access to opportunity, replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws.” Yet, in a significant step backward, Secretary Carson postponed the implementation of these rules until 2020.

Carson and his top appointees have continued their assault on fair housing with two additional proposals. Under his leadership, possible cases of discrimination that had been viewed as high priority under the Obama administration have been put on indefinite hold. And, further, last month Carson suggested that the mission of HUD be revised by deleting the agency’s goal to “build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.”

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All of this, of course, should be seen in the context of current congressional and Trump administration actions to undermine or remove a range of consumer protections. Specifically, in March, the Senate voted to make significant changes to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010. As quoted in The Washington Post, consumer advocates are concerned that if enacted, the proposed changes would “weaken the government’s ability to enforce fair-lending requirements, making it easier for community banks to hide discrimination against minority mortgage applicants and harder for regulators to root out predatory lenders.” In addition, the House passed a bill in 2017 that would significantly weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. But even without new legislation, various Trump administration directives have seriously undermined the bureau’s original mission.

There are at least eight reasons why fair housing continues to be such an important issue:

  • Discrimination in housing is unconstitutional, based on several amendments to the Constitution.
  • Segregated housing patterns invariably result in differential educational opportunities for children. Although various remedies to equalize access to education have been pursued, the surest and most straightforward way to create integrated schools and equal educational opportunities is for children to live in integrated neighborhoods.
  • Adverse health impacts have been found in locales with high percentages of nonwhite households. Whether these areas are easy targets for the siting of toxic facilities, or the building of low-cost homes is more feasible in those locations, the results are the same: nonwhite residents suffer disproportionately from asthma, lead paint, and other health problems associated with the environments in which they live.
  • Areas with high concentrations of poor, nonwhite households have disproportionately higher rates of crime.
  • Children living in racially segregated areas may suffer from feelings of marginalization and low self-esteem, with possible adverse outcomes for their personal development and fulfillment.
  • Segregated neighborhoods are not only separate, but they also tend to be unequal in terms of neighborhood facilities and amenities, such as parks and access to good public transportation.
  • Housing discrimination and segregated neighborhoods are likely factors in maintaining the wealth gap between white and nonwhite households. Homes in racially segregated areas tend to appreciate less than homes in integrated areas. In addition, if nonwhite households are discouraged from homeownership due to discriminatory practices, their ability to take advantage of a key way that Americans have increased overall financial security, is removed entirely.
  • Areas that are easily identified as poor and non-white are frequently under-represented in Congressional districting, as gerrymandering is used to reduce the political influence of these populations.

Although many major cities across the country are still highly segregated by race, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has been enormously important: discrimination in housing is illegal and it represents a significant effort to reduce residential segregation. The actions of the current administration constitute a sad, frustrating, and perverse path to reverse the progress, the awareness, and the potential to strengthen the enforcement and reach of the act.

Secretary Carson should be held accountable for his positions and asked to explain how, exactly, his recent policy moves advance the goals of eliminating discrimination in housing and promoting racially integrated communities.

Rachel G. Bratt is professor emerita at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. She is also a senior research fellow for the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.



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