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Taking the Fairness Out of Fair Housing

President Trump’s recent tweets and his Administration’s abrupt withdrawal of vitally important fair housing regulations is a dangerous new low in elevating and normalizing racial hatred and divisiveness. The actions flout well-established administrative procedures in a manner that undermines democratic law and ideals. These actions should be condemned by every American who values our nation’s core principles and the rule of law.

As the leader of the Terner Center for Housing Innovation and former Assistant Secretary for Housing at HUD, I have a healthy regard for how regulatory reform is done. Like many in such positions trying to enact change, I have sometimes wished that the process could be quicker. But that very process is there to protect Americans from arbitrary government action and the unrestrained personal passions of elected or appointed officials, which is exactly why the Administration’s recent actions around fair housing regulations are so disturbing and dangerous. Adding to the offense, the President’s recent tweets announcing the rule change reinvigorate racially-coded dog whistles about the evils of “low-income housing”.

I am not alone in my anger. The reaction around our Slack watercooler from colleagues with varying life experiences and backgrounds was swift and urgent. “I have no words, only rage”, “totally disgusting”, “race-baiting at its core”, “trying to fan flames of divisiveness for electoral gain,” and “this is why November is critical” were just some of the more polite reactions. There was pure outrage at the substance of the policy reversal on advancing fair housing laws, the attempts to seed fear for political gain, and the unabashed abuse of power and contempt for established law and procedure to accomplish these ends.

In our professional roles as scholars, researchers, and practitioners, we value facts and data, and we seek to use policy as a way to “bend the arc towards justice”. We also believe in the policy-making process as a way to make sure evidence gathering, reasoned debate, and an opportunity for all voices to have a say in our nation’s laws.

When HUD asked for comments on ideas for breaking down regulatory barriers to developing more homes in November of 2019, we responded with thoughtful research and policy ideas. Many of these boast bi-partisan appeal. When HUD proposed changes to the Disparate Impact Rule, we joined with our colleagues at the Furman Center at NYU and signed on to a formal 29 page comment and analysis stating the proposed changes were wrong and harmful. We did it respectfully and according to established procedures.

So, you can imagine my horror to see the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing “AFFH” rule abruptly rescinded and replaced with a new final rule titled “Preserving Community and Housing Choice”. I am not an attorney, but I do know that something of this nature would never have occurred during the Obama or other previous administrations. And it should not happen now.

Many of our colleagues (including David Stevens and at the National Low-Income Housing Coalition and National Fair Housing Alliance) have already weighed in on how harmful this reversal is and how out of line the new rule is with the 1968 Fair Housing Act it was intended to implement. The authors of that Act—Senators Brooke and Mondale, as well as Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., whose assassination in 1968 prompted the majorities in both chambers to push this bill to President Johnson’s desk—would be incredulous to see this Administration’s interpretation of their bill. Interpreting the statutory obligation of cities to further fair housing as “any” action related to promoting “any” attribute of fair housing renders the legislation brazenly meaningless. It would be galling at any time to see this rule. But it’s particularly enraging and heartbreaking in this moment, as unprecedented waves of protest by folks of all political and racial backgrounds have come together in the last two months to demand racial justice and reform. That these actions were taken immediately after the death of Representative John Lewis, a champion of racial justice, are an affront to the man who preached non-violent civil disobedience and faith in true democracy.

We work to promote racial and economic inclusion in housing policy and practice and we add our voice to the many who condemn these latest insults to that cause. We also condemn the manner in which these new policies have been asserted and call for Congressional and/or legal action to stop HUD from proceeding with these maneuvers.

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