America’s Federally Financed Ghettos

The Editorial Board, New York Times, April 7, 2018

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By its actions and failure to act, HUD has prolonged segregation in housing since the 1960s under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The courts have repeatedly chastised the agency for allowing cities to confine families to federally financed ghettos that offer little or no access to jobs, transportation or viable schools. The lawsuits, filed by individuals and fair housing groups, have forced the agency to adopt rules and policies that have been crucial in advancing the goals of the Fair Housing Act.

Mr. Carson was named in such a lawsuit filed last month by the nonprofit Texas Low Income Housing Information Service. The suit accuses HUD of illegally funneling federal money to the city of Houston, despite a 2017 finding by HUD itself that the city was flouting federal civil rights laws by allowing racially motivated opposition to stop affordable housing projects in white neighborhoods. In a detail reminiscent of the Jim Crow South, the plaintiffs argue that Houston discriminates even at the level of flood relief, maintaining “entirely different (and markedly inferior) drainage systems in predominantly minority neighborhoods, exposing the residents of those neighborhoods to increased risk from storms.”

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FEDERALLY SPONSORED SEGREGATION

Critics of the Fair Housing Act have glibly attempted to dismiss attempts to end segregation as “social engineering” — as if rigid racial segregation in housing were a natural phenomenon. In fact, the residential segregation that is pervasive in the United States today was partly created by explicit federal policies that date back at least to World War I. It is now widely acknowledged that the federal insistence on segregated housing introduced Jim Crow separation in areas of the country outside the South where it had previously been unknown. It stands to reason that dismantling a system created by a set of government policies will require an equally explicit set of federal policies.

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The federal insistence on rigid racial separation found its most pernicious expression in the Federal Housing Administration, created in 1934 to promote homeownership by insuring mortgages. As the sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton document in “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass,” the government typically denied mortgages to African-Americans, shutting out even affluent black people from the suburban homeownership boom that remade the residential landscape during the middle decades of the 20th century.

Government at all levels embraced racial covenants that forbade even well-to-do African-Americans from purchasing homes outside of black communities. Cut off from homeownership — the principal avenue of wealth creation — African-Americans lost the opportunity to build the intergenerational wealth that white suburban families took for granted. The vast wealth gap that exists today between whites and African-Americans has its roots in this era.

The argument for what became the Fair Housing Act emerged forcefully in the 1968 Kerner Commission report, which blamed segregation in large measure for the riots that ravaged the country in the 60s and called for national fair housing legislation. {snip}

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This progressive sounding law — which requires entities that receive federal money to “affirmatively further” fair housing goals — was consistently undermined by officials of both parties who had little appetite for confronting entrenched segregation.

That realization came home with particular force to George Romney, Richard Nixon’s HUD secretary, who initially took the law at its word and tried to enforce it by turning down grant applications from communities that continued to segregate themselves racially.

When white communities complained directly to the Oval Office, Nixon shut down Romney’s effort and eventually forced him out of government. {snip}

THE NEXT FAIR HOUSING FIGHT

The Fair Housing Act received new life three years ago when the Supreme Court endorsed the doctrine known as disparate impact, ruling that housing discrimination did not have to be intentional to be illegal. {snip}

Soon after, the Obama administration issued a long-awaited rule that required state and local governments to affirmatively further fair housing goals by making efforts to address the cumulative results of the discrimination that historically shut African-Americans out of many communities.

The common-sense rule rightly breaks with the laissez-faire approach of the past, making it clear that compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws means abandoning the strategy of dumping affordable housing in ghettos — and giving poor residents access to areas that offer greater opportunity. {snip}

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This brings us back to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was intended to break down the walls around the country’s ghettos so that at least some people could forge successful lives elsewhere. If the country keeps betraying this landmark law, it will continue to squander a powerful tool for reducing lethal concentrations of poverty and for opening the door to upward mobility for the poor.

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