The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama administration to unveil major new rules targeting segregation across U.S.

Administration calls move "historic," while conservatives decry it as "social engineering"

Cabrini-Green public housing project, which has been mostly demolished and redeveloped, is seen against the Chicago Skyline in May 1996.  (AP Photo/Beth A. Keiser)

CHICAGO -- When the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, it barred the outright racial discrimination that was then routine. It also required the government to go one step further — to actively dismantle segregation and foster integration in its place — a mandate that for decades has been largely forgotten, neglected and unenforced.

Now, on Wednesday, the Obama administration will announce long-awaited rules designed to repair the law’s unfulfilled promise and promote the kind of racially integrated neighborhoods that have long eluded deeply segregated cities like Chicago and Baltimore. The new rules, a top demand of civil-rights groups, will require cities and towns all over the country to scrutinize their housing patterns for racial bias and to publicly report, every three to five years, the results. Communities will also have to set goals, which will be tracked over time, for how they will further reduce segregation.

“This is the most serious effort that HUD has ever undertaken to do that,” says Julian Castro, the secretary of the department of Housing and Urban Development, who will announce the new rules in Chicago on Wednesday. “I believe that it’s historic.”

Officials insist that they want to work with and not punish communities where segregation exists. But the new reports will make it harder to conceal when communities consistently flout the law. And in the most flagrant cases, HUD holds out the possibility of withholding a portion of the billions of dollars of federal funding it hands out each year.

The prospect of the new rules, which will also cover housing patterns that exclude other groups like the disabled, has already spurred intense debate. Civil rights groups pushed for even tougher rules but say HUD’s plans represent an important advancement on what’s been one of the most fraught frontiers of racial progress.

“Housing discrimination is the unfinished business of civil rights,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. “It goes right to the heart of our divide from one another. It goes right to the heart of whether you believe that African American people’s lives matter, that you respect them, that you believe they can be your neighbors, that you want them to play with your children.”

But conservatives have sounded alarm. Republicans in the House of Representatives, worried by what they see as government intrusion into local planning, have already tried to defund implementation of the rule. Conservative commentators say it represents an experiment in “social engineering” in which the federal government will force white suburbs to change their racial makeup.

“Let local communities do what’s best in their communities, and I would predict we’d end up with a freer and fairer society in 20 years than we have today,” says Rick Manning, the president of Americans for Limited Government. “Far freer and fairer than anything that would be dictated from Washington.”

[Why whites don't understand black segregation]

The centerpiece of the new rule is a vast trove of geographic data covering every community in the country — its racial makeup, its poverty rate, its concentration of housing vouchers and public housing, as well as the quality of its schools and its public transit. Nearly all of this data, already gathered by the government, comes from publicly available sources like the Census. But HUD hopes the database will enable communities to more clearly track where poverty and segregation overlap, where housing voucher recipients live relative to good schools, which neighborhoods contain no affordable housing at all.

The premise of the rule is that all of this mapped data will make hidden barriers visible — and that once communities see them, they will be much harder to ignore.

The administration’s announcement comes less than two weeks after the Supreme Court reaffirmed the power of the Fair Housing Act to ban housing policies that harm minorities. After a years-long delay, it is also arriving during a rare civil-rights moment, as the nation returns to familiar questions from the 1960s about the underlying causes of racial unrest in American cities.

“There is no question in my mind that part of the issue with Baltimore or Ferguson is about the relationship between the community and the police, but it’s much deeper than that,” Castro says. “It’s also fundamentally about people having opportunity in their lives. And where you live, in many ways, dictates the level of opportunity that you have.”

“That is social engineering"

Martin Luther King Jr. chose Chicago when, in 1966, he launched a campaign for “open housing” in northern cities where blacks had been restricted to slums. On Chicago’s South Side, their neighborhoods had been “redlined” by banks that refused to lend to black homebuyers. Restrictive covenants outside the ghetto barred blacks from moving in.

Real estate agents buttressed these patterns. The city’s housing authority concentrated public housing projects within these same neighborhoods, too. The Federal Housing Administration, which heavily subsidized the migration of whites to the suburbs, had historically blocked blacks from living there, too.

“The most profound form of social engineering was the creation and maintenance of segregated suburbs,” says Craig Gurian, a civil rights lawyer and the executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. “That is social engineering.”

Opposing views of HUD’s new rule are fundamentally about different interpretations of this history. Critics argue that the kind of overt discrimination that existed in 1968 seldom exists today. Civil rights groups counter that past discrimination lives on in housing patterns that America has never addressed.

“Fifty years ago that was really a great argument,” Manning says. “Thirty years ago it might have been somewhat substantive. But 1968 was a long time ago.”

Civil-rights groups say that fair housing is about removing the constraints on the housing market — such as zoning laws that bar apartment construction in the suburbs and formulas that ensure affordable housing is built primarily in poor neighborhoods — so that lower-income and minority families will have more options. Conservatives see the rule, instead, as government intrusion into a market that is already open.

In Chicago and many cities, the racial lines drawn by history are largely the same ones that exist today. Black-white segregation in metropolitan Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and New York has budged only modestly in 40 years. Within the city of Chicago, white flight has meant that many once-white neighborhoods have become predominantly black. But over half a century starting in 1960, Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson identified just one neighborhood in the entire city that transitioned in the other direction.

[White support for fair housing has long lagged behind the law]

These patterns have persisted in spite of the Fair Housing Act in large part because of the failure of the law’s proactive mandate to "affirmatively further" fair housing.

“You don’t undo that,” Ifill, of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, says of all this history, “just by stopping people from engaging in discrimination.”

George Romney, Mitt Romney’s father and the secretary of HUD from 1969 to 1973, tried to withhold HUD funding from local communities that fought desegregation. His efforts, swiftly blocked by the Nixon administration, are remembered today by civil-rights advocates as the fleeting moment when the federal government was most committed to integration.

HUD has never aggressively enforced the language, although it has pursued some complaints against communities for defying that part of the law. Westchester County, New York, has been mired for years in a legal battle with HUD, thanks to a lawsuit claiming that the county misled the government by accepting HUD funding without affirmatively furthering fair housing.

The county agreed in a 2009 settlement to build 750 new affordable housing units, primarily in communities with few minorities. The settlement also required the county to adopt a law banning landlords from discriminating against subsidized tenants. As some of those benchmarks went unmet, HUD began to withhold money from Westchester. The county has since decided not to pursue any more block-grant funds, an option critics of the new rule warn many communities will choose.

“It’s not worth it because of the threat of lawsuits, the strings attached, and the control that Washington can then exert over you,” says Westchester County Executive Robert P. Astorino. “You get involved with the federal government, and you can’t get out of bed with them.”

"There’s nothing.”

Here in Chicago on a recent morning, 17 women sat in a classroom learning how to wield their housing vouchers to bring up their babies in better neighborhoods.

The non-profit Housing Choice Partners handed out a pair of maps on thick paper stock that the women might carry across town as they search for a new home. One illustrated, in green, the “opportunity areas” in the city. The other showed Chicago color-coded by crime.

“The darker the orange, the higher the crime. We’re keeping it really simple,” said Shinnette Johnson, an education coordinator leading a recent orientation.

Most of the women live in the dark areas on the south and west sides, where high crime is also accompanied by poor schools, deep poverty and racial segregation.

“If you look at State Street, there’s nothing on the State Street corridor for you to grow and prosper,” Johnson said, describing a stretch of Chicago’s historic “black belt” on the South Side. “It’s not even a store from 22nd to 55th.”

“Nope!” several women replied in chorus.

“There’s one store! On 55th at State. And what is it?”

“A liquor store,” one voice offered.

“A liquor store! That’s not a place I want to send my kids. And all the way down to 22nd, what’s there?”

A mother in the second row shook her head. ”There’s no grocery stores. There’s no clothing stores. There’s nothing.”

Chicago, for decades, has remained one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country — black separated from white, poor isolated from wealthy, families who need housing aid living far from the schools they’d choose for their children.

The seven-county metropolitan area recently produced a 133-page assessment as part of another HUD grant program that helped serve as a model for the new rule. Many local municipalities initially weighed in that they had achieved equal housing. The final report, though, bluntly concludes that concentrations of race and poverty in the region have remained “largely unchanged” for decades. And it includes two stark population maps: one showing the racial makeup of the region in 1980, and again in 2010.

“If you show those two maps next to each other, you can’t possibly look at that and say that we’re getting better, that we’ve solved this problem or that this is no longer an issue in the metropolitan area,” says Bob Dean, the deputy executive director for local planning with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning that worked on the report.

On the ground in Chicago, Housing Choice Partners also leads a tour every week to some of those “opportunity areas” in the city. Families pile into a 16-seat rental van. And they leave the South Side — not far from that State Street corridor — for neighborhoods where the child poverty rate is low and the life expectancy high.

The van passes by public libraries and grocery stores, well-tended parks and neighborhood schools. Occasionally, it pulls up to an apartment with an empty unit where everyone can pile out and picture life in a different kitchen, far across town.

Despite all this effort, it’s likely only a third of the women in the orientation class will move to a new home in one of the opportunity areas. In a good year, that’s the organization’s success rate. “There are so many barriers,” says executive director Christine Klepper. “Sometimes I wonder how we get any moves.”

The units are too expensive. Or voucher holders have to compete with market-rate tenants who don’t entail the same paperwork load. Or landlords reject them because of their vouchers, even though that’s illegal in Chicago. Or families can’t find the right-sized home in the 90-day window the housing authority gives them, or the right-sized home turns out to be in a place where you’d need a car.

Or, more often, there just isn’t much affordable housing in good neighborhoods, because the nicest places to live are often the most effective at keeping out new development, whether in the city or the suburbs.

“If you think about it, we’ve only had a fair housing law for 50 years,” Klepper says. “And we’ve had 300 years of slavery, Jim Crow, incarcerating black men, discrimination. To me, it’s not surprising that things have not changed much over time. It’s because we really haven’t tried.”