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Ben Carson's HUD will propose new rule, further weakening enforcement of fair housing laws

Ben Carson, secretary of U.S. Dept. of Housing

Ben Carson, secretary of U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development, in 2018. Credit: Getty Images/Shannon Finney

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration will propose a new rule, as early as Friday, that would reduce the burden on local governments to meet their fair housing obligations, further scaling back civil rights enforcement.

Among the changes sought by the Department of Housing and Urban Development: redefining what it means to promote fair housing, eliminating the assessment used to examine and address barriers to racial integration, and encouraging cities to remove regulations that stand in the way of affordable housing, according to the proposed rule obtained by The Washington Post.

Fair housing advocates say the proposal reduces the financial pressure on local governments to end residential segregation and discrimination, as required by the 1968 Fair Housing Act, and is the latest erosion of Obama-era regulations designed to enforce the landmark legislation.

Under 2015 regulations, communities were supposed to take meaningful action to overcome long-standing segregation by analyzing housing patterns, concentrated poverty and disparities in access to transportation, jobs and good schools.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson has characterized those steps as "overly burdensome" and "too prescriptive," saying that transforming segregated living patterns and poor neighborhoods into areas of opportunity is often not within a community's control.

The proposed rules focus on increasing what the administration is calling "fair housing choice" — through greater housing supply along with safe and sanitary housing conditions that HUD says will better allow families to live where they want — rather than racially integrating communities.

Thomas Silverstein, a fair housing attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said "discrimination and segregation will continue unabated when HUD doesn't provide meaningful fair housing oversight of local governments."

HUD officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The housing agency also wants to rank communities based on housing costs and fair market rents, among other criteria, and give top performers priority for federal housing grants.

The administration says such incentives would bolster the availability of affordable housing. But Silverstein said doing so would punish high-cost coastal cities with great housing needs — areas that were less supportive of Trump — and reward smaller, cheaper ones.

The proposed rules, to be published in the Federal Register ahead of a 60-day public comment period, come two years after Carson suspended the 2015 rule requiring more than 1,200 communities receiving federal housing dollars to draft plans to desegregate their communities — or risk losing billions in federal funds.

Fair housing advocates unsuccessfully sued HUD in 2018 over what they characterized as its failure to enforce fair housing laws.

HUD subsequently withdrew a computer assessment tool that provided communities with data and maps to help them gauge neighborhood segregation.

Housing advocates said the new rule represented a dangerous and fundamental misunderstanding of fair housing issues. The provision known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing was put in place five decades ago to prompt communities and public housing authorities that receive federal funds to address and cure harmful, lingering effects of their historical actions, said Lisa Rice, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

"Those lingering effects are still with us today," Rice said. "There is an inextricable link between race, place and opportunity. The fact is that communities of color disproportionately do not have banks, do not have grocery stores, do not have basic infrastructure or equal access to municipal services and amenities like sewer lines and paved roads."

The proposed rule also limits enforcement by only toughening federal scrutiny of communities sued by the federal government — and not private entities including civil rights and fair housing organizations, Rice said. That means jurisdictions found liable for discrimination through private lawsuits would still be eligible to receive federal funding, she said.

“In some ways, this is just memorializing what HUD has been doing since” the Trump Administration came into office, said Ian Wilder, executive director of Long Island Housing Services, a fair housing agency based in Bohemia. “They have been telling municipalities they don’t have to do an analysis of fair housing,” he said.

Carson has long criticized federal efforts to desegregate American neighborhoods as "failed socialist experiments." When questioned about the agency's intention regarding what's known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing during congressional hearings last spring, Carson testified that it "costs a lot of money and man hours to do that analysis." He signaled that he intended to focus on building affordable housing across all communities by deregulating and easing zoning restrictions.

"Why do you have segregation in housing? Not because George Wallace is blocking the door. It's because people can only afford to live in certain places," Carson said at a House hearing in May.

“I am dismayed but not surprised to learn that HUD is abandoning fair housing enforcement. Carson's words and actions should be condemned by all who embrace racial equity,” Elaine Gross, president of Syosset-based ERASE Racism, said.

Wilder added HUD is now “taking away the tools we have to overcome discrimination and segregation.”

The proposed rule change comes less than two months after Newsday published Long Island Divided, a three-year undercover investigation that showed widespread evidence of unequal treatment by real estate agents on Long Island. The investigation also revealed the industry’s state-mandated fair housing training of real estate agents was seriously flawed.

After the results of the investigation were released, Reps. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) called on Carson to investigate evidence of unequal treatment of minority homebuyers on Long Island and a coalition of congressional minority caucuses urged U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Carson to investigate “rampant discriminatory treatment of homebuyers of color” documented by Newsday.

“It is appalling and disgraceful that the Fair Housing Act has never been fully implemented or vigorously enforced. At a time when our nation is extremely divided and witnessing a spike in hate crimes, an uptick in violent attacks directed at racial and religious minorities, and an increase in overt and subtle acts of housing discrimination, this administration decides that NOW would be an appropriate time to relieve localities and states of their responsibility to address these issues,” said Fred Freiberg, executive director of the Fair Housing Justice Center in Long Island City and consultant for Newsday’s investigation, in a written statement.

With Olivia Winslow

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