As lawmakers hammer out a bill over the next two weeks to fund the federal government and keep it from shutting down, efforts to address the country’s long history of racial segregation may wind up in the crosshairs.
This July, the Obama administration finalized the affirmatively furthering fair housing rule, which requires localities to assess their levels of segregation, concentrated poverty, and other disparities and outline goals and priorities to reverse segregation as a condition for receiving federal housing funds. Republicans in Congress are seeking to halt the rule in its tracks, which would eliminate a key tool for addressing the residential segregation that continues today.
The rule follows the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was a landmark civil rights legislation that outlawed housing discrimination while going one critical step further by requiring the federal government to proactively work to integrate the country. The Fair Housing Act faced heavy opposition in the 1960s, and only after a series of riots and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did lawmakers pass the legislation.
Over the nearly 50 years since its passage, the Fair Housing Act’s mandate to proactively further fair housing has faced a bumpy road to implementation. Though administrations have tried at times to enforce the legislation, these efforts have met with limited success. The Obama administration’s final rule seeks to help communities fully comply with the law by establishing a new approach to expand access to communities with opportunity for people of color while also encouraging efforts to create more opportunity in distressed neighborhoods.
The Obama administration’s rule would therefore be an important milestone toward full compliance with the Fair Housing Act. The finalized rule employs several measures to help communities comply: It brings clarity to the fair housing obligations local governments must meet to receive federal housing funds, and it calls on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide improved data access so that communities can more accurately assess the state of fair housing in their jurisdictions. The rule also commits HUD to providing technical assistance to grantees and phasing in implementation in order to give communities time to adapt to the new approach.
But some in Congress are already pushing back. The House approved an amendment from Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AR) to its Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill that would prohibit using federal funds to implement the rule, and the Senate is considering a similar amendment offered by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) to its counterpart appropriations bill. Given the traction these amendments have gained, efforts to obstruct the fair housing rule may resurface as Congress finalizes its funding bill.
The country still has extreme levels of segregation. Census data shows that despite growing racial diversity throughout the country, African Americans are concentrated in segregated neighborhoods and very diverse neighborhoods are rare. Though most African Americans want to live in integrated neighborhoods, black Americans earning $75,000 a year tend to live in poorer neighborhoods than white Americans earning just $40,000 a year. Neighborhoods with high levels of poverty are disproportionately black and Latino despite higher numbers of white people living in poverty. High levels of segregation and concentrated poverty are bad for society as a whole; research shows that areas with high segregation have slower income growth and property value appreciation for everyone, not just the minority communities that are segregated.
Decades of public policies enforced these ongoing trends in segregation. They included redlining, the practice through which the government explicitly refused to insure mortgages for people of color, and local zoning rules that can obstruct affordable housing and promote segregation. Given the connection between place and opportunity — through good schools and quality public health and recreational services — full compliance with the Fair Housing Act can help address racial inequities and strengthen communities.