The contempt of the housing and urban development secretary, Ben Carson, for the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has blinded him to policies that are in the nation’s best interest, and made him a prime target for lawsuits and court intervention. Last year, for example, the Federal District Court in Washington stopped the Department of Housing and Urban Development from derailing an Obama-era program that helps low-income families receiving federal assistance to find homes in middle-class communities with good schools, transportation and jobs. Now, the court would be wise to bar HUD from shelving another set of rules — those that require communities to analyze segregation and submit plans for remedying it as a condition for drawing down billions of dollars in federal aid.
A new lawsuit filed by fair housing groups shows that HUD’s decision last January to suspend the segregation rule — in the absence of notice, public consultation or even plausible explanation — violates federal law. If the suspension is allowed to stand, it will essentially vacate federal oversight of as much as $5.5 billion a year in development money that is being parceled out to nearly 1,000 jurisdictions around the country. Freed from federal scrutiny, jurisdictions with proven histories of using federal money to confine low-income families in impoverished, racially isolated areas would be free to carry on business as usual. The Fair Housing Act, which turned 50 last month, was meant to solve America’s segregation problem by requiring state and local governments that accepted federal aid to “affirmatively further” fair housing goals — which meant making credible efforts to roll back segregation, which the federal government itself had fostered through discriminatory mortgage policies. But elected officials from both parties sold out that promise, allowing state and local officials to continue policies that sustained even egregious forms of segregation without fear of losing access to federal dollars. Governments that received federal aid were required only to produce vague, nonbinding analyses of “impediments” to fair housing. These were essentially filed away and had no real impact on housing development decisions.
The Obama administration wrestled with this issue in a legally prescribed rule-making process that lasted several years and involved extensive consultation with stakeholders. The rule, which became effective in 2015, defined compliance with the “affirmatively furthering” provision of the Fair Housing Act as “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.”