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HUD Secretary Ben Carson doubles down on dismantling Obama-era fair-housing policies

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has mainly kept a low profile at HUD. Here’s some of what he has been up to. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

The Trump administration is doubling down on its efforts to undo Obama-era fair-housing policies in the wake of a lawsuit alleging that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had wrongfully suspended a requirement that communities address barriers to racial integration.

HUD on Friday evening announced that it is withdrawing a computer assessment tool that provides communities with data and maps to help them gauge neighborhood segregation.

The tool, developed during the Obama administration, was meant to help communities comply with a little-enforced provision of the 1968 Fair Housing Act that compelled local governments to use federal dollars to end residential segregation.

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But HUD on Friday said the tool was “confusing, difficult to use, and frequently produced unacceptable assessments.”

“We believe in furthering fair housing choice in our neighborhoods, but we have to help, not hinder those who have to put our rules into practice,” Anna Maria Farías, HUD’s assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, said in a statement. “We must make certain that our tools can facilitate the goals we all share — to build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.”

A 2015 rule required more than 1,200 communities receiving federal housing dollars to use the tool to assess local segregation patterns and draft a plan to correct them — or risk losing HUD funding.

The tool contained questions for local governments to answer, by referring to the data and maps provided by HUD, about policies and practices that influence housing patterns. In addition to analyzing residential segregation, communities were supposed to examine areas of poverty concentrated by race as well as disparities in accessing jobs and quality schools.

HUD Secretary Ben Carson had suspended that rule in January, prompting the lawsuit last week by a coalition of fair-housing advocates.

The agency says it is now seeking public input on how local governments could best promote fair housing choices while it reviews how it could make the assessment tool “less burdensome.”

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In conjunction with removing the tool, the agency said it would also withdraw its January suspension of the 2015 requirement that communities submit their assessments of racial segregation to the agency in the manner and timeline outlined by the Obama administration.

Fair-housing advocates said the agency’s move to withdraw the tool is simply another way for HUD to suspend communities’ obligation to examine and fix residential segregation.

“They’re trying to achieve the same goal, just through a different avenue,” said Lisa Rice, president and chief executive of the National Fair Housing Alliance, one of three housing advocacy groups that filed the lawsuit. “They’re trying to get out from under the lawsuit. Instead of suspending the rule, they’re making the tool that communities use to follow the rule null and void.”

Rice had met with Carson prior to the lawsuit being filed to ask him to reinstate the 2015 rule and enforce it, to no avail.

Sasha Samberg-Champion, lead attorney on the lawsuit, said HUD's withdrawal of the very action being challenged in court doesn't "fundamentally change anything in the real world."

The Trump administration is still allowing local and state governments to receive billions of dollars in federal housing grants without demonstrating compliance with the full requirements of the Fair Housing Act, he said, despite HUD's claims Friday that its latest actions show its commitment to the 50-year-old law.

HUD directed communities to revert to what they were supposed to have been doing prior to the 2015 rule — self-certifying that they have analyzed impediments to fair housing and taken actions to address them.

But housing advocates said the retreat would perpetuate housing segregation, given earlier assessments by the Government Accountability Office, a bipartisan commission and HUD itself that the previous provisions were essentially toothless.

Carson, who has long criticized federal efforts to desegregate American neighborhoods as “failed socialist experiments,” said during his confirmation hearing that the 2015 rule compelled communities to look around for “anything that looks like discrimination.”

Carson has also come under fire recently for his proposal to at least triple the minimum rent that the poorest Americans pay for federally subsidized housing.