“Failed Socialist Experiment” or Fair Housing?


It’s really just a tale of two radically different opinions on how to deal with racial segregation in America’s communities.

New Jersey Senator Cory Booker was born in Washington, D.C., the year after Congress passed the 1968 Fair Housing Act. He credits the law, which made racial discrimination in housing sales and rentals illegal, for making it possible for his African-American parents to become the first black family to move to Harrington Park, N.J., a white community with strong public schools that helped to prepare him for Stanford, Oxford and Yale Law School. But he says bad zoning laws still make housing more segregated and less affordable, and he recently introduced legislation to make housing less exclusionary.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson, on the other hand, has long criticized federal efforts to desegregate America’s neighborhoods. He recently suspended a 2015 Obama-era rule compelling communities to identify and tackle obstacles to racial integration. What this means is that 1,200 or so U.S. communities who receive billions in federal housing dollars will still get the money; they just no longer have to make plans to desegregate their communities as a prerequisite. Housing advocates fear local governments will simply pocket federal funds and do little or nothing to address fair housing concerns.

“HUD has continued to grant federal dollars to municipalities even when they know the municipalities are engaging in discrimination,” Lisa Rice, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a recent Washington Post report. “They are rewarding cities for bad behavior.”

In an interview last month, Carson said HUD plans to “reinterpret” the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and how it is applied. Carson did not provide any detail regarding exactly how the rule will be reinterpreted, but it may be worth noting that his statement came only days after nearly 20 Republican lawmakers led by Utah Senator Mike Lee asked him to rescind the rule entirely.

According to a lawsuit recently filed against Carson and HUD by the National Fair Housing Alliance, Texas Low Income Housing and Information Service and Texas Appleseed, Ben Carson was critical of the AFFH Rule long before he became HUD secretary, comparing it with “failed socialist experiments” like the federally mandated busing of schoolchildren during the 1970s and 1980s. As soon as he was appointed HUD secretary, Carson began cutting back implementation efforts and in January 2018, HUD abruptly announced that the AFFH Rule was being suspended.

The lawsuit’s complaint charges that the Fair Housing Act is largely useless without the AFFH Rule, and Carson illegally suspended the 2015 rule without providing advance public notice or opportunity for comment. According to HUD, its decision to push back the rule was based on several factors:

  • The process was too burdensome for the communities receiving federal funds;

  • Too many HUD resources were being used to help modify the plans;

  • More than one-third of the nearly 50 plans presented to HUD had been rejected due to incompleteness or inconsistency with fair housing requirements.

But those who helped develop the Obama-era rule say that is precisely why the rule is necessary, and almost all the rejected plans were accepted after HUD offered assistance. In the two years that the rule was in effect, they say that many jurisdictions have committed to concrete reforms that will build more integrated communities and improve the lives of their most vulnerable citizens, and a retreat now would allow housing segregation to continue.

The Fair Housing Act may have been enacted by Congress 50 years ago to ban various forms of housing discrimination, but most agree that HUD has done little to enforce the provisions of the act requiring the state and local government entities to take meaningful action to address long-standing racial segregation issues before accepting billions of dollars in federal housing funds.

The AFFH requirement of the act was intended to provide a vehicle for enforcement, but due to the ineffectiveness of this “honor system” of sorts – governments were only required to produce nonbinding analyses of impediments to fair housing that generally had no effect whatsoever on housing in their communities – the AFFH rule was created in 2015. The AFFH rule compelled communities around the country to comply with the Act by:

  • Examining local housing patterns for racial bias;

  • Identifying areas of segregation and poverty;

  • Taking concrete steps to address the recognized problems.

Plans were to be submitted to HUD every five years, starting in 2016, and communities lacking HUD-approved plans would be no longer eligible for federal housing money.

But do government incentives to promote fair housing actually work?

According to a 2015 study conducted by Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research, the answer is yes. Children of randomly selected families who used HUD’s “Moving to Opportunity” vouchers to move from high-poverty housing projects to mixed-income neighborhoods attended college at higher rates and ended up earning substantially more than those who stayed in the projects (an average lifetime earnings increase of about $302,000), but only if they were young (under age 13) when their families moved. Those above 13 who moved didn’t typically experience the same improvements, and the researchers acknowledged the importance of maximizing the benefits by targeting such housing vouchers to families with very young children.

These same individuals were also found to be living in better neighborhoods as young adults and were less likely to become single parents, suggesting that offering poor families the opportunity to move to wealthier neighborhoods could actually break the intergenerational poverty cycle and in the long run, actually benefit taxpayers.

How much this data will matter in the case against Carson and HUD remains to be seen. The court is currently considering a motion to dismiss filed by the defendants, along with a motion in opposition to defendants’ motion to dismiss filed by the plaintiffs. Any reply in support of the defendants’ motion must be filed by Sept. 4, according to D.C. District Court Judge Timothy J. Kelly.

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