Segregation in metro Chicago
Source: Salon.com

Recent news might suggest that the US is about to enter a golden age of fair and desegregated housing. There has definitely been better news recently. In the least noticed of a trinity of big wins for liberals/President Obama, The Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) can challenge local policies that create segregation. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released new rules targeting segregation in housing across the US, something civil rights groups have been pushing for for decades.

Unfortunately, these actions aren’t really the victories that the headlines proclaim. Serious political leadership is still needed for these actions to be anything more than symbolic, and housing as a field has seen some decidedly non-symbolic setbacks in recent years.

If this seems pessimistic, you have to understand that fair and affordable housing in the US is not the place to come looking for a hopeful story.

Let’s start with the Supreme Court’s ruling. A bare majority of five justices held that the FHA allows the government to deal with discrimination arising from “disparate impact” – that is, policies that have a racial impact even when policymakers do not justify their decisions in explicit racial terms. This was an unexpected victory, but should be couched more in terms of dodging a bullet than moving fair housing forward. The ability to sue based on disparate impact is already a (barely enforceable) power that states, cities, and HUD had; no circuit court had ruled against HUD in previous court challenges. A Supreme Court ruling against the government would have made it impossible to prove discrimination unless government zoning documents, for example, read like a speech at a Klan rally.

There is a case for extremely guarded optimism on HUD’s new rules, which require municipalities to submit data on patterns of racial bias and a public report every three to five years. Many are probably shocked that HUD did not already collect and report on this kind of data. While moving towards better data and holding municipalities to higher standards is important, when it comes time to actually withhold HUD money – when states and cities really begin to howl – we will see how serious the government is about enforcing desegregation.

HUD hasn’t been able to play a major role in housing desegregation since George Romney (father of Mitt) was HUD Secretary in the 1960-70s and tried to withhold funding from areas that were not “affirmatively furthering” fair housing. Nixon slapped Romney down in this effort so hard that the sound is still reverberating around HUD headquarters, and HUD hasn’t been able to play a major role since. For a must-read account of this episode and its effect today, see Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 2012 ProPublica article “Living Apart“.

Nothing in HUD’s new rules proves the government ability to act on its findings of discrimination, and given the perception of the issue – some of which was on display in the Supreme Court’s dissenting opinion in the disparate impact case – it’s going to be an even harder fight now than in the 70s.

Is this pessimism really justified?  Racial segregation (although not income segregation) is slowly decreasing in most places, after all. Maybe these symbolic rulings are just hopeful signs as we make a committed cultural shift away from segregation.

The problem is that desegregation has never just happened on its own. Right now, even as people of different income levels and races are beginning to once again occupy many of the same physical spaces in cities, they are failing to occupy the same social spaces, and form a community.

We have a unique opportunity to mix things up to create more equitable housing patterns, but the gap between promise and reality is stark; if we continue on current trends, I am worried that we will just see an inversion of flight from cities in the 20th century, where the poor are forced out to crumbling suburbs as inner cities are “rediscovered”.

Symbolic actions shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. Symbolism is extremely important in areas like housing that are intimately tied to government action and also important in challenging racism, as shown in recent debates about the Confederate flag. Symbolism can be the important first step. But it’s not time to congratulate ourselves yet.

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