Recognizing the unfinished business, the Obama administration in 2015 promulgated a new regulation pursuant to the Fair Housing Act’s requirement that the federal government “affirmatively . . . further the policies of” the 1968 law. The regulation would have put teeth into that long-underenforced provision by requiring cities and towns to examine housing patterns for evidence of unlawful discrimination, then formulate plans to overcome it, as a condition of eligibility for federal housing and development aid.
Now, however, the Trump administration has formalized plans to undo the Obama-era rule. On Tuesday, it released a draft rule that waters down the definition of “affirmatively furthering fair housing.” The 2015 rule called for “meaningful actions” that “replac[e] segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns”; now merely “advancing fair housing choice within the program participant’s control or influence” will pass muster with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
This is disturbing, but not at all surprising, in light of previous Republican opposition to President Barack Obama’s policy, specifically that of current Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who, as a presidential candidate, denounced the 2015 rule as “social engineering” akin to other “failed socialist experiments.” Already in 2018, Mr. Carson had delayed implementation of the 2015 rule’s tough new reporting requirements and got rid of a computer tool that was supposed to help communities comply with it.
A federal judge upheld Mr. Carson’s authority to take those previous steps — which is not the same as saying he was wise to do so, much less to issue the Tuesday pronouncement. The history of housing discrimination in this country is in significant part a history of deliberate government policy, not market forces or individual choice. Ghettos such as those in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Baltimore, in fact, reflect federal policies of the mid-20th century that made segregation a condition for federal support of various kinds. That was social engineering of the most shameful sort.
Enacted in the aftermath of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the violent urban uprisings triggered by that murder, the Fair Housing Act represented a decision by Congress and then-President Lyndon B. Johnson that the federal government would, at last, join the battle for fair and equal access to living space in this country, after decades in which it had fought on the wrong side. Under President Trump and Mr. Carson, Washington is sounding a retreat.