Supreme Court: You Can Get Sued for Segregated Housing, Even If It's an Accident

On Friday, the Supreme Court is meeting in closed conference to decide whether it will take up cases on the issues of same sex-marriage and marriage recognition from several states. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images) (National Journal)

Advocates for more racially integrated housing won a major victory Thursday at the Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said certain housing policies that put minorities at a disadvantage, even if they aren't expressly intended to discriminate, can be challenged in court.

The court sided with a community organization alleging that Texas' housing department had improperly clustered Section 8 housing in low-income, high-crime areas — essentially preserving the segregation that federal housing law was designed to end.

Texas had argued that the lawsuit was invalid, and the question before the high court was whether the Fair Housing Act — a law intended to outlaw racial discrimination in housing — allows people to sue over practices that might not be explicitly discriminatory, but end up hurting minorities disproportionately.

Equal-housing advocates say such lawsuits are a critical tool to make sure housing policies work. If the point of Section 8 housing is to give families access to the kinds of community resources that can help them break out of poverty, they argue, they have to be able to challenge policies that undermine that goal.

On the other side, though, Texas' housing department said it shouldn't be subject to lawsuits when it acted with good faith and had no intention of hurting anyone.

Landlords can receive tax credits for providing low-income housing — and, in exchange, they have to accept Section 8 vouchers. State housing agencies decide who gets those tax credits — and, by extension, where tenants will be able to find landlords that accept vouchers.

In Texas, a nonprofit community organization alleged that the state housing agency was clustering landlords' tax credits in areas dominated by minorities, often with high crime rates and low-performing schools.

The way the voucher system was administered "has not just perpetuated but exacerbated the exact discriminatory effects of racial segregation that Congress passed the (Fair Housing Act) to remedy," the Inclusive Communities Project said in its brief to the Supreme Court.