HUD Secretary Ben Carson took action earlier this month to give up on our nation’s 50-year legal commitment to housing integration.
In a proposed new rule, Secretary Carson supports the gutting of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, abandoning HUD’s enforcement of provisions of the law that requires cities, counties, and states that take federal funds for housing to use them in ways that end racial segregation.
Previously, HUD’s rules called for state and local governments to undertake “meaningful actions” that “replac[e] segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns.” That included making sure government-funded affordable housing is available in low-poverty, desirable neighborhoods near good jobs and schools.
HUD’s proposed change removes consideration of where housing is available, suggesting cities instead commit to activities that represent a developer and landlord wish list, but have nothing to do with housing integration. In a misguided effort to produce more market rate housing, HUD suggests cities eliminate:
- Rent control
- Building and rehabilitation codes
- Energy and water efficiency mandates
- Wetland or environmental regulation
- Mobile home regulations and restrictions
- “Time-consuming” construction or rehabilitation permitting and review procedures
- “Arbitrary or unnecessary” labor requirements
The solution to residential segregation isn’t found in creating more market rate housing. Segregation is the product of discrimination. Federal, state, and local government built the walls of housing and neighborhood segregation that plague our cities today. As Richard Rothstein has chronicled in his landmark book, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America:
“Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful that its effects endure to the present time.”
Where I work in Texas, people living in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods are denied an equal opportunity to be safe from crime, flooding and environmental pollution, and have their kids attend a good school, build equity in their homes, or even find a decent place to live in the first place.
This lack of equal opportunity stems from the extreme levels of neighborhood racial segregation that exist in virtually every city in Texas. These are communities of color that folks refer to as “the other side of the tracks,” which is a euphemism for separate, segregated, and unequal neighborhoods that often don’t have basic public services and facilities.
Policies and actions by federal, state and local officials that maintain inequality and segregation are not simply the racist acts of the past—they are ongoing. They are reinforced by countless acts or neglect by public officials every day. For example, officials refuse to let affordable housing be built in middle-income white neighborhoods, refuse to provide storm sewers and other essential public infrastructure in neighborhoods of color, and ignore toxic pollution.
Governmental acts that maintain this inequality and residential segregation are un-American. Again quoting Rothstein:
“Residential racial segregation by state action is a violation of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. The Fifth Amendment, written by our Founding Fathers, prohibits the federal government from treating citizens unfairly. The Thirteenth Amendment, adopted immediately after the Civil War, prohibits slavery or, in general, treating African Americans as second-class citizens, while the Fourteenth Amendment, also adopted after the Civil War, prohibits states, or their local governments, from treating people either unfairly or unequally.”
After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in April 1968, Congress told HUD to dismantle housing segregation when it passed the Fair Housing Act and directed HUD to enforce it. Today, in seeking to abandon enforcement of the key integration provision, Secretary Carson argues that the persistent problem of housing segregation and discrimination will be solved instead by deregulating the housing development industry, loosening labor requirements and eliminating environmental protections to build more housing.
This has been tried. It doesn’t work.
We Have Proof
Consider Houston and look at what that city’s infamously loose development standards, unenforced housing and building codes, and weak labor and environmental protection have done to families of color with low incomes. It produced hyper racial and economic segregation; schools in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods that fail the children so bad the State of Texas is forced to take over the school system; chronic flooding in the wake of storms that inundate the neighborhoods of people of color, requiring billions of federal dollars to rebuild homes; environmental catastrophes in African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods; and chemical pollution of these neighborhoods.
Even if the proposed rule change produces more of the market-rate housing that Carson seeks to stimulate, that housing will not be affordable to lower-middle-class and poor families. Homes affordable to lower-income households will continue to be the small pool of subsidized housing that are almost exclusively located in communities of color, most often in areas of concentrated poverty and physical distress.
Last May Secretary Carson asked a Congressional committee, “Why do you have segregation in housing? Not because George Wallace is blocking the door. It’s because people can only afford to live in certain places.” Of course economics is important. That is why there needs to be enforcement of the Fair Housing Act to overcome the prejudice that blocks subsidized homes from being built in a wider swath of neighborhoods.
Secretary Carson ignores the actions of individuals, cities, states, and even HUD itself that maintain residential segregation. These actions seldom today play out in front of TV cameras the way Gov. Wallace’s racism did. They happen out of sight in public policies enacted and maintained in city halls and state capitols across America.
Through his proposed rule change, Secretary Carson asks our nation to accept these legacies of racism and give up on our nation’s half-century commitment to integrated communities. We must tell him no.