For half a century, the citizens of Coal Run, Ohio — a predominantly black unincorporated community — were denied public water service. Federal funds helped build water lines around the town, forcing residents to retrieve water from nearby Zanesville, or collect rainwater and store it in containers, risking contamination.
The practice more or less ended after an $11 million federal jury verdict in 2008 found that Coal Run had illegally been denied water.
But fair housing advocates and organizations around the country fear that that kind of discriminatory practice could return under a proposal by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson and the Trump administration.
On Jan. 7, HUD issued a proposal to basically eliminate an Obama-era mandate, outlined in 2015’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, that required certain towns and cities to keep track of, and address, racial bias in housing. HUD under the Trump administration has amended parts of the mandate over the last three years.
"Mayors know their communities best, so we are empowering them to make housing decisions that meet their unique needs, not a mandate from the federal government," Carson said when the proposal was issued, adding that HUD still stood ready to enforce the Fair Housing Act.
But Carson’s proposal has enraged and galvanized fair housing advocates who insist it would “gut” the AFFH mandate, which they see as a vital protection against discrimination.
“What HUD has released is not a rule to affirmatively further fair housing,” said Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “It significantly weakens fair housing compliance, entrenches segregated housing patterns, and continues the status quo in which some communities are strengthened by taxpayer-supported programs and amenities while other neighborhoods are starved and deprived of opportunities.”
The AFFH was designed to correct discriminatory housing practices as well as the lasting impact of government and privately sponsored residential segregation. Under the mandate, jurisdictions and public housing authorities that receive federal funding are required to analyze patterns of segregation and discriminatory housing practices for families with children, people of color, people with disabilities and members of other protected classes. They are also required to take action to combat barriers to fair housing.
Carson’s plan, Rice and others insist, essentially promotes producing more affordable housing, but eliminates regulations and accountability, thereby allowing the potential for segregation and discriminatory practices.
All this comes as the nation prepares to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., “who was instrumental in creating the Fair Housing Act,” Rice said. “It was a direct gift from Dr. King to the nation. You could say he gave his life for this. It was a key part of his dream, and we will not see it deferred or denied.”
HUD’s proposal comes as the number of housing discrimination complaints reached a record high last year, as noted in the National Fair Housing Alliance’s 2019 Fair Housing Trends Report and a comprehensive investigation by the Long Island newspaper Newsday that revealed vast discrimination by real estate agents. NFHA published answers to thwart real estate sales discrimination. Opponents say this new proposal from HUD would obstruct those and other efforts to advance fair housing.
Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, one of the groups working to stop Carson’s proposal, said Carson was displaying “willful ignorance of racist policies.”
Increasing the supply of public housing will not result in fairer practices or access to housing for black and brown people protected under the Fair Housing Act, Yentel said.
Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said, “It’s absurd that (the Fair Housing Act) came out of segregation but segregation is not mentioned in his rule,” said, in essence allowing public housing administrators free rein to discriminate.
The hope among the advocates is that they can educate the public and put pressure on Carson and the Trump administration to abandon the proposal. Legal action has not been ruled out.
“Our nation has expended an incredible amount of resources creating the disparities that plague our communities,” Rice said. “This proposed rule is the antithesis of what we need, which are resources, commitment, resolve and a strong rule to promote fair housing. HUD should abandon this misguided effort and reinstitute the AFFH rule.”