“As long as the color of a man's skin determines his choice of housing, no investment in the physical rebuilding of our cities will free the men and women living there,” President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote to Congress in April 1966. “A nation that aspires to greatness cannot be a divided nation – with whites and Negroes entrenched behind barriers of mutual suspicion and fear.”
Racial discrimination in housing harms not only families who struggle to find homes, but communities still plagued by segregation. Housing segregation reinforces racism and diminishes us as a nation.
So why is the insurance industry fighting to tear down one of the most important tools we have for preventing discrimination?
Under pressure from the insurance industry, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is considering revising its regulation on “disparate impact” claims in the Fair Housing Act, the landmark legislation that bans housing discrimination on the basis of race and other factors. Other federal agencies are considering similar action.
Under the concept of disparate impact, actions can amount to discrimination if they have an uneven effect even if that was not the intent.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the principle of disparate impact in its 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said “recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment."
That case revolved around the tax credits the federal government provides for developers who build low-income housing. The Inclusive Communities Project sued the Texas agency responsible for administering these tax credits for allocating too many tax credits "in predominantly Black inner-city areas and too few in predominantly white suburban neighborhoods." The policy effectively kept black families out of predominantly white neighborhoods.
But even though the disparate impact principle is settled law, the insurance industry continues to push the Trump Administration to challenge it.
Economic justice is dependent upon fair housing. Moving from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood raised incomes, improved college attendance, and reduced teen-age pregnancy, a Harvard study found. Zip code is a better indicator of life expectancy than genetic code.
To stand in the way of fair housing is to oppose racial equality itself.
As a civil rights organization devoted to fair housing for more than 100 years, the National Urban League will not tolerate the erosion of the provisions of the Fair Housing Act, or the failure of the Department of Housing and Urban Development to fulfill its duty.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League.