New Trump housing rule could allow 'free rein to discriminate without consequences'

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The Trump administration said local governments are overburdened by an Obama-era rule intended to ensure communities confront racial segregation in housing.

The Trump administration took steps Tuesday to roll back an Obama-era rule intended to ensure that communities confront and address racial segregation in housing, saying local governments have been overburdened by the requirements.

The proposed Department of Housing and Urban Development rule would redefine fair housing standards to place more emphasis on improving housing choice rather than reducing discrimination. It would reduce regulatory burdens and eliminate the assessment tool used to map racial segregation under the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.

According to HUD, simplifying the process for cities to meet fair housing requirements would help them meet their civil rights obligations. But housing advocates caution the plan would substantially weaken fair housing enforcement, leading to a resurgence of racial segregation across the country.

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"This proposal would dismantle efforts to combat ongoing racial segregation in the housing market and effectively allow jurisdictions free rein to discriminate without consequences," said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Housing Secretary Ben Carson, who previously criticized President Barack Obama's fair housing rule as "social engineering," said the new rule would give people more affordable housing options in communities nationwide.

"Mayors know their communities best, so we are empowering them to make housing decisions that meet their unique needs, not a mandate from the federal government," Carson said. "If a community fails to improve housing choice, HUD stands ready to enforce the Fair Housing Act and pursue action against any party that violates the law."

The 2015 fair housing rule, put in place to strengthen enforcement of the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968, for the first time required more than 1,200 jurisdictions receiving HUD block grants and housing aid to analyze housing stock and come up with a plan for addressing patterns of segregation and discrimination. If HUD determined that the plan, called a Fair Housing Assessment, wasn't sufficient, the city or county would have to rework it or risk losing funding.

The Trump administration in 2018 suspended the full implementation of the rule and withdrew a data tool designed to help cities analyze their housing, arguing it was too costly and burdensome for both local jurisdictions and the federal government. A group of housing and civil rights advocates unsuccessfully sued HUD over the suspension of the rule.

The proposal released Tuesday aims to replace the 2015 rule. The public will have 60 days to submit comments once it is published in the Federal Register.

It seeks to change the definition of fair housing from "taking meaningful actions that, taken together, address significant disparities in housing needs" and "replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns" to "advancing fair housing choice within the program participant’s control of influence."

Housing advocates say the consequences will be disastrous.

"If the rule takes effect, ongoing housing discrimination and segregation will likely continue to be swept under the rug and HUD resources will do far less to reduce segregation and expand housing opportunities for people of color, people with disabilities, and other protected groups," said Peggy Bailey, vice president of housing policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

HUD officials emphasized a simpler process that focuses on achieving results.

In a shift from a 92-question checklist localities had to answer on housing desegregation, the proposed rule would require each jurisdiction to submit three goals it plans to reach to overcome obstacles to fair housing choice, and leaves the contents of those goals largely up to the cities themselves. According to HUD, 63% of localities had their fair housing plans either rejected or only accepted after "substantial HUD-directed revisions," with proposals that averaged 204 pages.

The proposed rule also seeks to rank jurisdictions based on housing costs and market rates, and reward top-performing jurisdictions with incentives that could include additional program funds. Those localities where housing choice is relatively poor will be more closely scrutinized.

The goal is to boost the availability of affordable housing. But some housing advocates say it could put high-cost coastal cities with great housing needs, such as California, at greater risk of losing federal funds than smaller, less-expensive rural areas, which tend to be more supportive of Trump.