Under Ben Carson, HUD Scales Back Fair Housing Enforcement

Glenn Thrushmarch, New York Times, March 28, 2108

The Trump administration is attempting to scale back federal efforts to enforce fair housing laws, freezing enforcement actions against local governments and businesses, including Facebook, while sidelining officials who have aggressively pursued civil rights cases.

The policy shift, detailed in interviews with 20 current and former Department of Housing and Urban Development officials and in internal agency emails, is meant to roll back the Obama administration’s attempts to reverse decades of racial, ethnic and income segregation in federally subsidized housing and development projects. The move coincides with the decision this month by Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.

But Mr. Carson dismissed the idea he was abandoning the agency’s fair housing mission as “nonsense” in a memo to the department’s staff earlier this year, and reiterated that point during recent congressional hearings. A spokesman for the agency, Jereon Brown, said any programmatic changes are part of the routine recalibration undertaken from administration to administration, rather than a philosophical shift.

Advocates for the poor and career HUD officials say that Mr. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and his political appointees have begun weakening the department’s fair housing division at a critical moment. The agency now has its greatest leverage to right past wrongs thanks to the $28 billion in disaster recovery Community Development Block Grants that Congress has appropriated to rebuild the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

In an email in November, a top HUD official relayed the news that the head of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division, Anna Maria Farías, had ordered a hold on about a half-dozen fair housing investigations given the highest priority under Mr. Carson’s most recent predecessor, Julián Castro. The freeze would be in effect “until further notice,” the official wrote.

The investigations, known as “secretary-initiated cases” to indicate their importance, had been used in the past to set precedent and to put other localities and developers on notice.

One of the delayed investigations looked at an ordinance in Hesperia, Calif., that prevented the siting of neighborhood group homes for parolees and former offenders throughout the city’s neighborhoods. HUD investigators saw the case as an important test of the federal resolve to rehabilitate low-level offenders, who often face housing and job discrimination when they are released, leaving them in need of government assistance.

Other cases that were held up involved questions about the accessibility to the disabled of new dwellings built by a pair of large residential construction companies, Toll Brothers and Epcon Communities, in New York City and Ohio, according to a department official.

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HUD had opened a case in late 2016 in response to a ProPublica article that said Facebook gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “ethnic affinities” from seeing their ads when their social media habits identified them as black, Hispanic or Asian-American.

But even before Ms. Farías was appointed, Mr. Carson’s aides ordered fair housing division officials to cancel a planned negotiating session with Facebook executives, leaving HUD to take Facebook at its word that the company’s “policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate.”

Then, after taking office, Ms. Farías sent a one-page letter to Facebook ordering, without explanation, the termination of a preliminary investigation into the company’s advertising practices.

Fair housing groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan saying that Facebook continues to discriminate against certain groups — including women, veterans with disabilities and single mothers — in the way that it allows advertisers to target audiences for their ads.

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This is not the first time critics have accused Mr. Carson, the only African-American man in President Trump’s cabinet, of trying to stymie civil rights enforcement. Shortly after he was confirmed last year, Mr. Carson tried to reverse an Obama-era program that would make it easier for recipients of housing vouchers to use them in affluent neighborhoods.

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Last week, Mr. Carson told members of the Senate Banking Committee that he planned to delay another Obama-era rule that would have required local governments to create detailed plans to integrate racially divided neighborhoods.

And a provision barring localities from using federal funding to undertake such programs was stealthily inserted into the 2018 spending plan passed last week by Congress.

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The most significant fight over fair housing under Mr. Trump is taking place in Houston, a sprawling metropolis ranked in numerous studies as one of the United States’ most segregated cities, where overt opposition to a housing development based on race and income has drawn the attention of career HUD investigators.

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