Over the past six months, my colleague Alana Semuels has covered the contentious issue of affordable housing, reporting from places like Chicago, Detroit, Louisville, New York City, the Texas cities of Beaumont and Austin, and Amherst, Massachusetts. That issue came to a head on Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled that policies that result in segregating minorities in poor neighborhoods, even if unintentional, violate the Fair Housing Act. “This is a big deal for housing rights and civil rights groups, and a bit of a surprise,” writes Amy Howe at SCOTUSblog.
What exactly was at stake in this case? From Alana’s preview of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, posted over the weekend and updated this morning in light of the ruling:
[B]uilding more low-income developments in high-poverty neighborhoods perpetuates class segregation, and Inclusive Communities argues it also perpetuates racial segregation. [...] Though Texas might not have been intentionally discriminating against minorities in the allocation of its tax credits [for affordable housing], its policies still had a “disparate impact” on minorities by segregating them in high-poverty areas, Inclusive Communities argues.
The Supreme Court case centers on whether Texas had to be discriminating against minorities on purpose to be found unlawful. After all, it’s difficult to prove that anyone had the intention to discriminate. It’s much easier to prove that an action had a discriminatory effect—and the evidence is clear that the policies did segregate families in Texas.
A lot of readers don’t see that de facto segregation as something the federal government should be trying to fix. Here’s TwoHatchet, the most prolific conservative in our comments section:
White people wanting to live apart from black people is not white people oppressing black people. Angelina Jolie is not oppressing me by not wanting to have anything to do with me.
Commenter Ed takes issue with another quote from Alana’s piece:
“If you want people of color who are low-income to be able to have an opportunity to live in a suburban community, you have to get a tax-credit development out there,” [fair housing advocate John Henneberger] told me.
This quote is devoid of logic. If people can afford the suburbs, they can live there. If they can’t afford it, why should the government put them there? Stop with the social engineering and go find something else to prove you’re a saint on Earth.
ThinkingCritically has a more considered take:
No community can make a rule that minorities are not allowed. You are overlooking the common sense notion that people want to live among their economic peers, and that should be ok. Your economic peers are more likely to maintain their property at the same level you do. They won’t want to steal your stuff because their stuff is just as nice. And you probably don’t have worry about them setting a worse example for your children than you might already be setting.
So to use race and class interchangeably in this context muddies the waters. I for one would much rather live in a neighborhood where I am the only white person and all the other minority residents shared my same financial situation, rather than live in a big house in a trailer park full of destitute white people.
Race and class do have a correlation due to historical misdeeds, it is true. But depriving people of the right to live among those of their same socioeconomic status is not the only way to correct them.
TwoHatchet’s bottom line: “Government has no business in choosing to legally enforce segregation or integration, both of which can be executed by individuals exercising their choice.” Lisa Rice retorts:
Ahhh, but the problem is that for over a hundred years, our government did sponsor and support segregation. The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 to remedy that.
My colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates delved into that history in “The Case For Reparations,” which centers on the redlining of poor neighborhoods that prevented black families from getting federally-backed mortgages in Chicago for decades before the practice was outlawed in 1968.
While the conservatives in our comments section have some compelling points, the most interesting part of the housing debate is between liberals with the same general goal—improving the lives of poor minorities through government intervention—but who advocate for different approaches. One major approach is to encourage poor families to move to wealthier communities using vouchers and affordable housing. The opposite approach is to use that money to invest in poor families within their existing neighborhoods. (Of course many liberals want to pursue both tracks simultaneously, but to some extent the investment is zero sum.)