The Department of Housing and Urban Development is planning to take yet another significant step backward.
The agency has proposed a new “affirmatively furthering fair housing” rule that would make it far more difficult for HUD or any other fair housing group to combat persisting patterns of discrimination and segregation in the nation’s housing markets.
The Fair Housing Act, enacted in 1968, requires recipients of federal housing and community development funds to take action — to affirmatively further fair housing — that will identify the causes and consequences of discrimination and segregation in the nation’s housing markets and create the “truly balanced and integrated living patterns” that Walter Mondale, co-sponsor of the 1968 act, called for on the Senate floor.
But this obligation was long honored in the breach until the Obama administration issued a rule in 2015 that provided clarity and muscle for compliance and enforcement. Key provisions included requiring recipients of federal funds to conduct a fair housing assessment to identify policies and practices that led to discriminatory and segregated outcomes and then to implement programs to eradicate those outcomes. Local participation in the formulation and implementation of those plans was a related key component of the 2015 rule.
In January 2018 HUD suspended this regulation. In January 2020, the agency issued a proposal that would eliminate the affirmative planning and local participation requirements along with several other regulations in an effort to provide “clearer guidance to states and local governments to help them improve affordable housing choices in their community.”
But affordable housing does not automatically translate into fair housing. Segregation results from a variety of practices and not just income differences across different groups. Steering by real estate agents, redlining by mortgage lenders and home insurance companies, discriminatory appraisals, refusing to rent to families with housing vouchers are just some of the practices that perpetuate segregation.
These practices can be identified by the fair housing assessments required under the previous rule. Increasing the supply of affordable housing will not make them go away.
Paired testing by a variety of public and private organizations has consistently demonstrated that when equally qualified white and nonwhite home seekers (that is families with similar incomes and wealth as well as housing preferences) visit real estate or rental agents they are often treated differently. The most recent national housing discrimination study conducted by the Urban Institute for HUD in 2012 found that in one out of every eight visits whites were told about and shown more homes than were nonwhites.
A 2015 investigation by Rutgers University public policy professor Paul Jargowsky for the Century Foundation concluded that poor blacks were three times more likely than poor whites to live in a poor neighborhood.
Yet as Solomon Greene of the Urban Institute and Shamus Roller of the National Law Project noted, HUD’s proposal does not even mention racial segregation or racially concentrated areas of poverty which the Fair Housing Act was designed to address.
HUD should unsuspend the 2015 rule, which, as the Poverty & Race Research Action Council concluded, “provided clarity and real teeth to the mandate and established a new robust framework for fair housing planning (the Assessment of Fair Housing) that yielded promising results from its early rollout.”
As for its new proposal, HUD should simply scrap it. That would advance the agency’s efforts to fulfill its mandate to make fair housing a reality and lead to the balanced living patterns envisioned when the Fair Housing Act was passed.