How Ben Carson at Housing Could Undo a Desegregation Effort

Emily Badger, New York Times, November 23, 2016

President Obama’s civil-rights legacy looked on track, not long ago, to include a major push against America’s deeply entrenched housing segregation. In 2015, his administration rolled out a rule requiring local communities to assess their own patterns of racial and income segregation and make genuine plans to address them.

The move followed years of debate and came as segregated cities like Baltimore and Chicago faced renewed bouts of racial unrest. The federal government, advocates hoped, was finally trying to repair a long-unkept promise of the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Now that rule is likely to be undermined — and possibly erased — by a Department of Housing and Urban Development headed by Ben Carson.

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Known as “affirmatively furthering fair housing,” the rule has been politically contentious. Its backers argue that it is essential to remedying the long history of government and private-sector discrimination that has resulted in poor, segregated neighborhoods persisting to this day. Critics say that the rule amounts to government overreach into the decisions — and demographic makeup — of individual communities and a free housing market.

Republicans in Congress have tried to defund its implementation. Mr. Carson wrote last year that the new policy followed the government’s history of failed “mandated social-engineering schemes,” and would redirect low-income housing primarily into wealthy, white communities that oppose it.

If he is confirmed by Congress, Mr. Carson would have wide latitude to shape or slow the rollout of the rule, along with broader enforcement of the Fair Housing Act.

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George Romney and Jack Kemp, past Republican HUD secretaries, acknowledged that second implication of the law. But for much of the time since the Fair Housing Act was passed, this “affirmative” mandate has been largely ignored by both local communities and HUD itself. The Obama administration rules were an effort to address that half-century oversight. And some fair-housing advocates have spent just as long fighting for it.

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In practice, the rule provides those communities with detailed data on factors like racial demographics, poverty rates, school quality and housing voucher use to help them determine whether lower-income and minority families are isolated from good schools or segregated from opportunity. The rule requires communities to use that information to draft plans to reduce segregation where it exists. Those that habitually defy the requirements risk lose funding from the agency.

The first round of communities scheduled to complete the process have been at work on assessments due over the coming year. Before they’re done, a new administration hostile to the idea could begin writing another rule that would reverse this one, or it could simply halt implementation. Or Congress could pass a law defunding it, even as it remains on the books. For all the years that went into shaping the rule, a new administration could relatively easily set it aside.

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