Journalism in the Public Interest

A Year Later, Feds Inch Forward on Fair Housing

As “This American Life” features ProPublica’s reporting on failures to enforce the Fair Housing Act, federal regulators have taken a few steps to improve it.

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Tonight’s episode of “This American Life” will feature a story based on ProPublica’s yearlong investigation “Living Apart: How the Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law.”

Called “House Rules,” the TAL segment will examine the ways zip code determines the destiny of many Americans. The show will feature some of the actors who go undercover to test the market for hidden housing discrimination, a highly effective tool seldom used by the government.

Our reporting chronicled the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s repeated failures in enforcing the 1968 Fair Housing Act. This landmark legislation not only barred discrimination in housing sales and rentals – it also required communities to “affirmatively further” residential integration.

Since we published our first stories late last year, there have been several significant developments on matters we reported. Here’s what’s happened.

HUD Proposes Regulation

In July, HUD issued a proposed regulation that for the first time clearly defined the steps local and state governments that receive HUD funding must take to examine housing segregation based on race and show they are in line with the Fair Housing Act. The effort to define such rules began under the Clinton Administration, but stalled because of objections from cities and counties. President Obama had promised the regulation would be issued by the end of 2010, but conflicts within HUD and pressure from powerful outside groups kept it bottled up for years.

The proposal would create a new planning process under which HUD grantees must use data provided by the federal government on segregation, racially concentrated areas of poverty, access to education, employment, transportation and environmental health to set housing and development priorities.

Advocacy groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council have praised the regulation. Others, including The Weekly Standard, have accused HUD of social engineering.

The public comment period on the proposal ended Sept. 17. The final regulation has not yet been issued.

Westchester County Loses Grant Dollars

In August, HUD took the unprecedented step of stripping $7.4 million in community development block grants from Westchester County, N.Y., the tony New York City suburb that settled a landmark fair housing lawsuit in 2009.

The second installment of ProPublica’s “Living Apart” series documented how, even with the explicit backing of a federal court, HUD had not taken steps to make Westchester County comply with requirements of the Fair Housing Act. But this summer, after years of defiance by county leaders, Westchester became the first jurisdiction ever to lose its allocation of HUD grant dollars for not affirmatively furthering fair housing.

“It is unfortunate the County continues to fall short in its duty to identify barriers to fair housing choice and to work to overcome these obstacles,” HUD Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones said in a press release. “This continuing failure to meet these requirements offers HUD no choice but to make these funds available to other jurisdictions that are willing to meet their civil rights obligations.”

Case Settles, Enforcement Tool Saved

For the second time since early 2012, a tool of fair housing enforcement has been saved from possible extinction by a case settling before it reached the Supreme Court. Last week, the town of Mount Holly, N.J., settled a lawsuit slated to go before the court on Dec. 4.

As ProPublica reported in February, the Mount Holly case centered on allegations of what’s called “disparate impact”: That a policy or practice disproportionately harmed racial minorities or other protected groups. The Fair Housing Act does not explicitly mention disparate impact, but federal courts have consistently affirmed the principle in rulings over a 40–year period. Since modern-day discrimination is rarely overt, this precedent has become a powerful tool for the government and civil rights groups, allowing them to bring cases against landlords, lenders or jurisdictions by showing their policies or actions had disproportionate effects on certain groups of people. (Not all such impacts violate the law; if a legitimate business practice leads to the disparity, it’s not a violation.)

Mount Holly was sued a decade ago over its development efforts in a predominately black and Latino part of town. The town bought and destroyed most of the homes in the neighborhood, planning to build more expensive housing that never came to be. Residents sued, saying the town’s actions had a disparate impact on African Americans and Latinos.

The legal battle finally made its way to the nation’s highest court this year, setting the stage for a potential challenge from its conservative wing, which has revisited aspects of several pieces of landmark civil-rights legislation in recent sessions.This summer, the court limited the reach of the Voting Rights Act.

In 2011, the Supreme Court accepted a disparate impact case out of St. Paul, Minn., but federal officials and civil rights activists persuaded the city to withdraw the case to avert a ruling that might strike down the principle.

In February, as the Court contemplated whether to hear the Mount Holly case, the Obama Administration released a long-promised disparate-impact regulation aimed at solidifying the principle’s place in fair housing enforcement.

Last week, Mount Holly avoided the Supreme Court showdown when its town council voted to compensate those who’d lost their homes.

Disparate impact lives to fight another day.

ProPublica is also looking into segregation at secondary schools. Parents and researchers can help our reporting by filling out this form. 

For more from ProPublica on the civil rights, check out our reading guide to the best reporting on segregation in America, and key takeaways from our fair housing investigation.

Catherine Heil

Nov. 22, 2013, 6:01 p.m.

Is there any stories on religious communities who discriminate?

Florence Roisman

Nov. 22, 2013, 6:42 p.m.

ProPublica’s coverage of these issues has done a huge amount to push HUD and other agencies to obey what’s been the law since the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments were adopted.  It would be wonderful if ProPublica also addressed the racial segregation promoted by the Internal Revenue Service of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, which administers the largest subsidized housing productfion and rehabilitation program in the U.S., the Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) program.  The LIHTC program now uses federal tax dollars to segregate families of color into underserved, unhealthy, unsafe neighborhoods with substandard public schools.

Kathleen Cole

Nov. 22, 2013, 7:42 p.m.

I am interested in these developments, as I reside in a segregated community, created with tax credits. Developed by Trammel Crow Residential, in cooperation with the City of Denver, Broadway Station is a large high-rise apartment complex; it adjoins Broadway Junction, the LIHTC by a common courtyard, ingress and egress. Broadway Junction also houses the commercial spaces in the development.
Broadway Junction residents are forbidden access to the swimming pool, exercise facility, internal courtyard, conference space and business center of Broadway Station.
A visit to HUD’s Regional Fair Housing Office proved worse than fruitless, and, although the properties have, by now, changed hands, the tax credit set aside, which houses predominantly ethnic minorities, disabled and elderly, remains cut off from the remainder of the property (with the exception of the businesses housed within it.)
This apartheid is endorsed by Archdiocesan Housing, Inc., which now owns and manages Broadway Junction, as well as Windsor, the new owner of Broadway Station.
The Public Housing Authority, CHFA, provides no oversight regarding compliance, nor does any other entity.

Elizabeth Sloane

Nov. 23, 2013, 2:01 p.m.

Have you done an article on “Neighborworks” or “
Neighhood Reinvestmentf?

Suzanne Crowell

Nov. 23, 2013, 2:17 p.m.

Very good report. There are people right now in HUD that are really trying and have achieved regulatory change that has languished since 1968. HUD finally published a reg on disparate impact, drafts of which have circulated at least since the Carter Admin. I know—I too worked on such a reg in the early ‘90s. One thing—it leaves an inaccurate impression to say all housing testing is “left up” to nonprofits. Most of these nonprofits, if not all of them, get their money to do testing from the Fair Housing Initiatives Program run and funded by HUD. At some point a political decision was made for good or ill that having federal employees do testing was politically too sensitive.

Michael R. Orci

Nov. 23, 2013, 3:06 p.m.

Many people like to be amongst their own people. Is that ever taken into account when addressing where races live?  I have a Korean friend I grew up with, his family is extremely well off but they chose to stay in a poor area. Their friends are there, their grandmother is there, they’re happy where they are.

Kathleen Cole

Nov. 23, 2013, 4:56 p.m.

We seriously need to know how HUD proposes to enforce the Fair Housing Regulations, particularly in tax-credit housing. When the tax credit program was initially proposed, the job of seeing that the regulations were obeyed, was shuffled to the IRS and DOJ. Of course, if you live in a segregated community, as my neighbors and I do, go ahead and try to find anyone in the vastness of either the IRS or DOJ, who can even answer a question.

Mary Cornelius

Nov. 24, 2013, 4:04 p.m.

The country could really have used this story, featuring George Romney and his efforts to effect fair housing, during the last election.  I believe Mitt carries his father’s convictions in this area and is a man of integrity.  Instead, we continue to institute “Uncle Sam’s Plantation” as described by Starr Parker under the current regime.  Oh well, I guess airing the facts now is better late than never.

Michael, read back in the series.  Nikole has laid out the methodology pretty well.  But the short version is that millionaire blacks don’t want to live in crappy, crime-ridden housing just so they don’t need to look at white people.

I would be interested in seeing a comparison to the “favored” minorities, though, like Asian- and South Asian-American populations.  In my area, I feel like there’s an Asian-American neighborhood wedged right between my lily-white block and the black and Hispanic areas, like they’re some sort of 18th century “tree of life” racist buffer zone.

And I’d like to echo the sentiment that it’s nice to see HUD finally stir a bit.  Now, I guess we just need to expose their stonewalling in every other neighborhood in the country, unfortunately…

All they. Every did. Was sat on their ass. And did nothing to help victims

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Segregation Now

Segregation Now: Investigating America's Racial Divide

Investigating America’s racial divide in education, housing and beyond.

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