Emily Badger, Washington Post, July 8, 2015
When the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, it barred the outright racial discrimination that was then routine. It also required the government to go one step further–to actively dismantle segregation and foster integration in its place–a mandate that for decades has been largely forgotten, neglected and unenforced.
Now, on Wednesday, the Obama administration will announce long-awaited rules designed to repair the law’s unfulfilled promise and promote the kind of racially integrated neighborhoods that have long eluded deeply segregated cities like Chicago and Baltimore. The new rules, a top demand of civil-rights groups, will require cities and towns all over the country to scrutinize their housing patterns for racial bias and to publicly report, every three to five years, the results. Communities will also have to set goals, which will be tracked over time, for how they will further reduce segregation.
“This is the most serious effort that HUD has ever undertaken to do that,” says Julian Castro, the secretary of the department of Housing and Urban Development, who will announce the new rules in Chicago on Wednesday. “I believe that it’s historic.”
Officials insist that they want to work with and not punish communities where segregation exists. But the new reports will make it harder to conceal when communities consistently flout the law. And in the most flagrant cases, HUD holds out the possibility of withholding a portion of the billions of dollars of federal funding it hands out each year.
The prospect of the new rules, which will also cover housing patterns that exclude other groups like the disabled, has already spurred intense debate. Civil rights groups pushed for even tougher rules but say HUD’s plans represent an important advancement on what’s been one of the most fraught frontiers of racial progress.
But conservatives have sounded alarm. Republicans in the House of Representatives, worried by what they see as government intrusion into local planning, have already tried to defund implementation of the rule. Conservative commentators say it represents an experiment in “social engineering” in which the federal government will force white suburbs to change their racial makeup.
“Let local communities do what’s best in their communities, and I would predict we’d end up with a freer and fairer society in 20 years than we have today,” says Rick Manning, the president of Americans for Limited Government. “Far freer and fairer than anything that would be dictated from Washington.”
The centerpiece of the new rule is a vast trove of geographic data covering every community in the country–its racial makeup, its poverty rate, its concentration of housing vouchers and public housing, as well as the quality of its schools and its public transit. Nearly all of this data, already gathered by the government, comes from publicly available sources like the Census. But HUD hopes the database will enable communities to more clearly track where poverty and segregation overlap, where housing voucher recipients live relative to good schools, which neighborhoods contain no affordable housing at all.
Martin Luther King Jr. chose Chicago when, in 1966, he launched a campaign for “open housing” in northern cities where blacks had been restricted to slums. On Chicago’s South Side, their neighborhoods had been “redlined” by banks that refused to lend to black homebuyers. Restrictive covenants outside the ghetto barred blacks from moving in.
Real estate agents buttressed these patterns. The city’s housing authority concentrated public housing projects within these same neighborhoods, too. The Federal Housing Administration, which heavily subsidized the migration of whites to the suburbs, had historically blocked blacks from living there, too.
Civil-rights groups say that fair housing is about removing the constraints on the housing market–such as zoning laws that bar apartment construction in the suburbs and formulas that ensure affordable housing is built primarily in poor neighborhoods–so that lower-income and minority families will have more options. Conservatives see the rule, instead, as government intrusion into a market that is already open.
In Chicago and many cities, the racial lines drawn by history are largely the same ones that exist today. Black-white segregation in metropolitan Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York has budged only modestly in 40 years. Within the city of Chicago, white flight has meant that many once-white neighborhoods have become predominantly black. But over half a century starting in 1960, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson identified just one neighborhood in the entire city that transitioned in the other direction.
These patterns have persisted in spite of the Fair Housing Act in large part because of the failure of the law’s proactive mandate to “affirmatively further” fair housing.
“You don’t undo that,” Ifill, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, says of all this history, “just by stopping people from engaging in discrimination.”