The Trump administration is delaying an Obama-era rule that bolstered enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, a decades-old law intended to combat segregation in neighborhoods across the country. While the delay doesn’t eliminate the rule entirely, housing advocates say it indicates, at the very least, an attempt by federal officials to weaken hard-fought housing protections.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is planning to push back the deadline for cities to analyze and address issues of segregation and improve conditions for people of color by several years, to October 2020, according to a HUD memo obtained by ThinkProgress and set for release on Friday.
“At a minimum this is a precursor to significantly watering down the assessment tool which is a template that jurisdictions use to complete their assessment of fair housing,” said Thomas Silverstein, counsel in the Fair Housing & Community Development Project at the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Laws. “This is such a significant delay.”
Some communities seeking HUD grant funding have been required to complete comprehensive neighborhood segregation analyses required in the Obama-era rules since October 2016. Deadlines for cities and towns to complete those analyses have been rolling out since on a staggered basis, depending on the date of the grant they were seeking.
With a number of assessments due starting this April, cities and towns will not have to abide by the Obama-era rule when completing their analyses until 2020.
The agency’s current disdain for neighborhood desegregation policies reflects comments HUD Secretary Ben Carson has made in the past. Carson characterized the Fair Housing Act of 1968 and other government-led attempts to integrate neighborhoods, including the Obama-era rule that was introduced in 2015, as a failed “social experiment.”
“These government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality create consequences that often make matters worse,” Carson wrote in a Washington Times op-ed in 2015. “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens, but based on the history of failed socialist experiments in this country, entrusting the government to get it right can prove downright dangerous.”
The Fair Housing Act was created with the intent of unraveling decades of racial segregation in neighborhoods across the country and banning housing discrimination. It eventually led to the passage of the Housing and Community Development Act in 1974, which increased federal funding for the revitalization of cities, subsidized housing for the poor, and improved housing options available to black Americans.
Following the passage of the Fair Housing Act, HUD required communities seeking federal funds to promise the agency they were actively working to desegregate housing. But that was only enforced for a couple of years in a handful of places, before President Richard Nixon stepped in and replaced the department’s secretary who was leading the enforcement.
Such standards became law in 1974. Still, despite the fact that the American housing market remains segregated, HUD seldomly enforced it, according Silverstein.
Under the Fair Housing Act, communities are required to send HUD an analysis that describes the hurdles residents of color face and what actions local officials are taking to combat segregation. But local leaders often sent in largely inaccurate data, while HUD neglected to verify whether the information was correct.
The Obama administration gave HUD officials more power in 2015 by allowing the agency to withhold money from communities not abiding by the Fair Housing Act and working to break down segregated neighborhoods by creating the so-called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act.
The rule created more structure, clarity, and guidance for grant-seeking cities and towns undertaking their analyses, complete with more data and robust community engagement, according to Silverstein. The analysis requires communities to identify racially- or ethnically-concentrated areas of poverty and disparities in access to opportunity and housing. It also requires communities to show the factors contributing to the segregation and create a plan to address those problems, he said.
A number of cities have already gone through the analysis process and implemented policy changes as a result, including New Orleans — which passed new inclusionary housing standards, and the Philadelphia Housing Authority— which adopted small area fair market rents for the housing choice voucher program, previously known as Section 8.
Silverstein fears the Trump administration’s delay will impact HUD’s monitoring of the analyses, which improved after the implementation of the rule, prompting cities to once again, do a less thorough job obtaining accurate segregation data. It could also disincentivize key community stakeholders from sparking robust conversations and gathering accurate information for the analysis since the delay shows the Obama rule may be on its last leg, he said.
UPDATE: Housing and Urban Development Spokesman Brian Sullivan issued a statement claiming the decision to delay the rule was made following a public comment period asking for input on HUD rules and regulations that were “excessively burdensome or unclear.”
“What we heard convinced us that the Assessment of Fair Housing tool for local governments wasn’t working well. In fact, more than a third of our early submitters failed to produce an acceptable assessment—not for lack of trying but because the tool designed to help them to succeed wasn’t helpful,” Sullivan said in the statement. “We are extending the deadline to submit these required assessments while HUD invests substantial human and technical resources toward improving this Assessment of Fair Housing tool.”
“HUD stands by the Fair Housing Act’s requirement to affirmatively furthering fair housing, but we must make certain that the tools we provide to our grantees work in the real world,” he added.
UPDATE (1/6/18): Rep. David Price (D- NC), the ranking member on the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee, issued a statement slamming the Trump administration’s decision to delay the implementation of the rule as “misguided” and based on political grounds.
“The AFFH rule, introduced by HUD during the Obama administration, represents an important commitment by the federal government to ensure communities can comply with the Fair Housing Act, take meaningful steps to reduce discrimination, and improve opportunity for all citizens,” Price said in the statement.
“The decision by the Trump administration to delay implementation of this rule is misguided and appears to be based on either purely political grounds or a deliberate misunderstanding of what the rule requires,” he continued. “As with any new regulation, some communities may need more time to comply than others. But this problem could be addressed on a case-by-case basis.”