The Disparate Impact Decision

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By Trevor Smith

The Supreme Court made several major decisions in what has been one of the most historic summers in a very long time. While much of the public’s attention focused on the rulings around same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act, here at the National Low Income Housing Coalition (NLIHC), we eagerly awaited the decision which would reaffirm an important legal standard under the Fair Housing Act prohibiting policies and practices that discriminate against people based on race, even if done unintentionally. The monumental ruling, which won by a 5-4 margin, is a big step in the right direction toward ensuring every American has access to decent and affordable housing in a neighborhood of their choice.

The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) of Dallas brought the case against the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, claiming that the department violated the Fair Housing Act by  disproportionately approving applications for  Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTCs) for developers who largely sighted their housing projects in minority neighborhoods, thus perpetuating racial segregation.

The department, for its part, argued that the Fair Housing Act did not allow the ICP from proving the department discriminated against minorities by showing that its housing policies had a “disparate impact” on those individuals. Under the legal standard of disparate impact, a plaintiff can show that while a particular housing practice or policy has no deliberate discriminatory intent, it still has a disproportionately negative impact on racial minorities and thus may violate the Fair Housing Act.

While a federal appeals court did not rule on the merits of ICP’s case, it held that the Fair Housing Act allowed parties to prove racial discrimination in housing through disparate impact. This decision was subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court, which fortunately upheld the ruling. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in which he described the importance of recognizing the “unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.” While recognizing that America has made numerous changes since the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, he added, “much progress remains to be made in our nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.”

The repercussions of Jim Crow laws are still being felt in today’s society, including their impact on housing, which plays such a crucial role in a person’s livelihood. A paper published by Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, states that “living in such high-poverty neighborhoods for multiple generations adds an additional barrier to achievement, and multigenerational segregated poverty characterizes many African-American children today.” Our goal, as fair housing advocates, is to help break this cycle by ensuring everyone has the opportunity to live in a community where their family can thrive.

Thurgood Marshall ,the first African-American judge of the U.S. Supreme Court, once said,

“Housing in our society today is more than a shelter. It includes the whole environment in which the home is maintained. A well-built house in a poorly planned, impoverished, slum area, without adequate schools, community facilities, etc., does not provide good housing.”

It is heartening to see our Supreme Court justices echo the sentiments of their predecessors. As we move forward, we hope to see communities take the steps necessary to not run afoul of the Supreme Court’s decision by employing policies that encourage the development of more inclusive neighborhoods.

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Trevor Smith is a senior journalism student at the American University. Originally from Germantown, MD, he spent the majority of his childhood in Asia. Upon graduation, Trevor hopes to work for a non-profit in a communications role, in hopes of informing the public on the social issues that matter.

Congress at Home, Advocates Should Urge Action in Fall

 

Will you be meeting with you representatives this month while they are in district?  Both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives are on recess during the month of August, resuming legislative business on Monday, September 8. While they are in their home districts and with most House Members and 27 Senators seeking reelection in November, housing and homeless advocates should take the opportunity to remind them of the work they have left to do before the end of the 113th Congress.

A top “must pass” item is the Protecting Tenants in Foreclosure Act (PTFA). The current PTF law expires at the end of 2014. Unless it is made permanent or extended by December 31, many tenants whose landlords or property owners lose their properties to foreclosure will no longer have federal protections against imminent eviction. The laws governing tenant rights will revert to the array of state laws on the status of tenants at foreclosure, most of which still offer less protection than the federal law. S. 1761 and H.R. 3543 are the two Permanently Protecting Tenants in Foreclosure bills that need a vehicle for enactment this year.

Congress also must complete its FY15 HUD and USDA Rural Housing Appropriations bills. The Senate and the House will delay finalizing these bills until after the November election, but all Members need to hear that you expect funding at the levels in the bills that have cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee.

While no further action is likely on either housing finance reform or tax reform, advocates should stress that when Congress does act on these issues in the 114th Congress that robust funding for the National Housing Trust Fund must be included.

For more information on these issues and more, go to http://nlihc.org/issues.

A Real Solution

On Tuesday, Representative Keith Ellison (D-MN) gave a floor speech on his proposal to reform the mortgage interest deduction. The revenue raised through these smart and fair changes would allow us to address America’s affordable housing crisis by funding the National Housing Trust Fund.

Mr. Ellison raises an important issue: “The budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development we consider today does not meet our nation’s affordable housing problems.”

NLIHC and the United for Homes campaign agree with Mr. Ellison. We need to engage in real solutions to help the millions of Americans who are struggling to maintain housing stability… And reforming the mortgage interest deduction to be a more accessible tax benefit that also opens up the opportunity to create more affordable housing in communities across America is just that. 

Do you think it’s time that our budget responds to the 7 million extremely low income American households that cannot find an affordable and available home?

If so, join us in supporting Mr. Ellison & the United for Homes campaign through 3 easy actions:
1. Share this blog post and the YouTube video, so that more renters and homeowners can learn about a proposal that would benefit both of them.
2. Tweet about it. You can also RT @NLIHC, tag @keithellison, and/or use the hashtags #NHTF or #UnitedForHomes.
3. Lend your support in the YouTube video’s comments section. Americans needs to know that we can end homelessness, and our policymakers and elected officials need to hear that we demand change.

Learn more and join the movement at http://www.unitedforhomes.org.

More Reflections from the Road…

NLIHC staff have been on the road a lot, connecting with advocates and educating new audiences on the United for Homes campaign to fund the National Housing Trust Fund. We set out to help more people get involved, but as it often happens, we got just as much out of the trips by connecting with passionate advocates.

 Here are some reflections from Outreach Associate Joseph Lindstrom, who accompanied NLIHC President Sheila Crowley on a road trip to Michigan earlier this month:

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I returned from Michigan deeply impressed by the number of people who took time out of their day to get involved with United for Homes. It was also great to see that people from the various communities clearly understood mortgage interest deduction reform and the need for the National Housing Trust Fund. It has been said that reforming the mortgage interest deduction is a complex issue and can be confusing to explain, but everywhere we went the questions had less to do with the intricacies of the proposal and more to do with how people can help. It was inspiring to see how many people were ready to take action.

We were happy to tell new advocates how they can make an impact, and many times our current endorsers in Michigan were able to coordinate efforts with new allies. Just by participating in the events and showing overwhelming community interest in housing policy, attendees were advancing United for Homes.

Connecting with people throughout the country will continue to be important as the campaign builds momentum. I am grateful to have had this experience, and look forward to expanding on our success for future events. I learned a few new things about planning events, a few new things about generating support, and a whole lot about the wonderful advocates in Michigan.

View more pictures from Joe and Sheila’s Michigan road trip on the United for Homes Facebook page.

Last week, our State Coalition Project Director La’Teashia Sykes trekked all the way to Alaska! Here are reflections from La’Teashia on her trip:

Last week, I had the opportunity to present the United for Homes proposal at the conference of the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness, an NLIHC State Partner. Service providers and advocates from across the state came together to share strategies and discuss solutions for the state’s housing and homeless crisis. Not only were attendees clearly eager for change; people were excited to hear about how the United for Homes proposal could bring that change.

Like every other state in the country, Alaska struggles with affordable housing issues – further perpetuating homelessness in the state. Alaska is a unique state in many ways, but its sub-zero harsh winters set it apart from most U.S. states. No one should be without a safe and decent home at any point, period. But, with Alaska’s housing shortage at 12,329 for people with the lowest incomes in the state, many have no choice but to brave the cold when the shelters are too full or when they have reached their maximum days of stay.

“Living in your car? That doesn’t work! It’s like an ice box,” a formerly homeless man shared with conference attendees. He also mentioned that some purposefully cycle through the criminal system just to stay sheltered, warm, and fed during winter months. Now that he is in a permanent home, he does not have to worry about his limited food and water supply freezing over in his tent. In warmer months, he no longer fears bears or other wild animals ravaging his makeshift shelter in search of food.

Organizations like Catholic Social Services Anchorage and Beans Café are doing what they can to help people that do not have a place to call home. However, the needs are growing and the burdens on the shelter systems are heavy. With cuts to federal programs that serve those with the greatest needs, the burden will unfortunately continue to expand. I met with staff of NeighborWorks Anchorage, one of the organizations providing affordable rental housing. They discussed the need for funds to build housing affordable to poor families. With Alaska being a small population state, it gets a smaller allocation of federal funds for programs like HOME and CDBG– and it’s just not enough to produce housing for all in need of a home.

I learned many things during my trip, but what sticks out the most is that advocates and providers in Alaska care deeply about the people they serve, and because of that they work collaboratively to maximize and strengthen services for citizens in need. They are also hungry for real solutions to end the housing and homeless crisis. After my presentation of the United for Homes proposal, people asked detailed questions about the flexibility of the National Housing Trust Fund and how the proposal would affect Alaska. People were excited to see how much money Alaska could receive to build and preserve homes for those who need help the most if the National Housing Trust Fund is funded.

Other questions followed, but the best question I received from multiple people was: What can I do to advance United for Homes?

You might have guessed it, but one easy way advocates can advance United for Homes is by hosting a campaign event! NLIHC staff can help put together anything from a town hall meeting to a presentation for your board or a conference workshop. We are also happy to provide a state-specific PowerPoint presentation or coordinate a webinar.

After all, when it comes to engaging more people with the United for Homes campaign, we are happy to go to great lengths.

To find out more about hosting a campaign event, email outreach@nlihc.org.

The Solution

Home is the foundation. How do we ensure that every American has an affordable one? Watch the video to find out.