PubNotes: Key Takeaways From ProPublica’s Fair Housing Investigation

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This post originally appeared at ProPublica in October, 2012 as part of an ongoing investigation.

An overview of the U.S. government’s many failed attempts to promote integrated housing since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968.

Fair Housing Act Born in Heat of Civil Rights Movement

In wake of the race riots of the 1960s, the Kerner Commission implicated whites for promoting housing segregation that fueled the riots. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” the commission found. The panel recommended a fair housing law, and on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The law mandates that the federal government “affirmatively further” fair housing. George Romney, father of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, was an early champion of the law as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But his efforts to promote fair housing were stymied by President Richard Nixon and subsequent administrations.

“Stop this one,” Nixon scrawled in a note on a memo written by John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy chief. In a 1972 “eyes only” memo to Ehrlichman and H.R. Haldeman, another aide, Nixon explained his position. “I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong that forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong,” he wrote.

Read: Living Apart: How the U.S. Government Betrayed a Landmark Civil Rights Law

HUD: Beleaguered Enforcer of Fair Housing

As signed into law, the Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, block busting (in which real estate agents move a black family into a white neighborhood and use it to frighten white homeowners into selling), racial steering (in which real estate agents steer home seekers to racially distinct neighborhoods) and intimidation and coercion. It also required federal officials to “affirmatively further” fair housing, but didn’t detail what that meant. HUD was charged with enforcement and empowered to withhold federal funds from communities that violated the law.

In 1988, Congress expanded HUD’s authority in dealing with discriminatory landlords, but did nothing to clarify what it meant to “affirmatively further” fair housing.

What Does It Mean to “Affirmatively Further” Fair Housing?

Under the Clinton administration, HUD began to provide more guidance to communities receiving block grants. The agency released a Fair Housing Planning Guide in 1996, urging local communities to track impediments to fair housing and suggesting that block grant recipients set measurable goals and study the effect of local zoning laws. But it still didn’t give specific examples of what actions would compromise a community’s HUD funds. In 1998, HUD secretary Andrew Cuomo proposed a rule making clear that HUD would withhold funds if it found a community’s efforts “did not result in meaningful and measurable progress.” But the proposal died amid opposition from mayors and county governments.

The 1974 Housing and Community Development Act had created a single choke point 2013 the Community Development Block Grant program — for HUD to withhold funds from communities that blocked integrative housing. But HUD did not withhold a block grant from a single community between 1974 and 2008 for fair housing violations despite giving out more than $137 billion to 1,200 states, counties and cities across the nation 2013 including the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country. In several instances, records show, HUD has sent grants to communities even after they’ve been found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Fair Housing Efforts Under Obama, But…

Forty years after the initial passage of the nation’s fair housing law, the Obama administration renewed HUD’s focus on segregation. The agency oversaw the terms of a settlement with New York’s Westchester County after a federal judge found that it had “utterly failed” to live up to its fair housing obligations. In a separate lawsuit, HUD agreed to pay $62 million to 1,300 complainants to settle charges that the agency’s post-Katrina rebuilding program discriminated against African American homeowners. HUD also boosted funding for private fair housing enforcement agencies.

But, according to a 2010 investigation of the Government Accountability Office, the agency was still not performing its duty to enforce the fair housing law. Among the GAO’s findings:

  • One-third of HUD’s fair housing materials were out of date. More than one in 10 hadn’t been updated since the ’90s.
  • The “analyses of impediments to fair housing” provided by some communities to show compliance with the law were found to be worthless because of their “brevity and lack of content.” Most did not offer time frames for when the communities would eliminate barriers to integration or include the required signatures of elected officials.
  • 25 recipients of block grants had filed no analysis at all, “raising questions about whether some jurisdictions may be receiving federal funds without preparing the documents required to demonstrate that they have taken steps to affirmatively further fair housing.”
  • HUD staffers in seven regions had read the key documents for just 17 of 275 block grant recipients. Efforts to ensure “the integrity of the AI process … were not common.”

Under Obama, HUD has taken the unprecedented step of withholding block grant money over fair housing concerns from two communities in Louisiana and Texas. Yet HUD is still funding communities such as New Orleans 2013 currently being sued by the Justice Department for fair housing violations 2013 and Waukesha County, W.I. 2013 currently under investigation by HUD for fair housing violations.

Some veteran HUD officials say they do not even understand how to implement the Fair Housing Act. Rolando Alvarado, who supervised fair housing enforcement for HUD in New Jersey for more than a decade, offered a long pause before attempting to define what it meant for the agency to “affirmatively further” fair housing:

“That is tricky. There is no exact regulation, it’s a gray area, I’ve never seen anything that clearly defines that in my time at HUD,” Alvaro said.

The Obama administration said it would release new proposed regulations to reform the “affirmatively furthering” fair housing process by 2010. As the President’s first term comes to an end, the regulations have yet to be released. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, has said he may disband HUD altogether if elected.

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