THE FAIR HOUSING ACT will be 50 years old on April 11, but we already know the landmark civil rights law's anniversary won't be altogether happy. The Trump administration has just taken a step that will probably further delay the already overdue fulfillment of the law's promise.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it amid violent urban unrest whose proximate cause was the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. but whose deeper causes included systematic housing discrimination against African Americans. The years between the Great Depression and the Vietnam War saw mass migration of black people from the South to northern cities, where they were all but required to live in certain areas and to occupy substandard apartments and houses — due not only to private-sector bias but also to explicit local, state and federal policies. Consequently, by 1970, American neighborhoods were somewhat more racially segregated than they had been in 1930, according to data compiled by University of Michigan demographer William H. Frey.
The Fair Housing Act attacked this evil on two fronts: It banned discrimination by landlords, home sellers and lenders, and it required localities that receive federal funds "affirmatively to further" the goals of the legislation. The law's nondiscrimination provisions have been effective, which is a reason that segregation has declined significantly since 1970; progress has continued, though at a slower rate, in the 21st century, Mr. Frey reports. The "affirmative" portion of the law, however, has remained mostly unenforced, which is part of the reason there is still so much neighborhood segregation, especially in older northern cities such as Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
In President Barack Obama's second term, his administration tackled this long-standing issue with a regulation requiring jurisdictions receiving federal housing aid to make much more detailed analyses of their residential patterns and submit remedial plans to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). For the first time in almost half a century, this put teeth in the "affirmative" part of the Fair Housing Act. Opponents, including then- presidential candidate, now HUD secretary, Ben Carson, cried "social engineering" — though the new rule was the mirror image of mid-20th century policies, which had leveraged federal dollars to promote segregation.
This past Friday, Mr. Carson's department announced that it would move back the existing deadline for compliance with the new rule, effectively postponing implementation for most communities until at least 2020. Mr. Obama's approach has not been repealed, but it has been cast into limbo.
Housing segregation is difficult to separate from racial disparity in education, health and access to transportation. With those connections in mind, the Obama administration produced a complex and intrusive regulation — possibly too complex and intrusive for some communities under some circumstances. The solution, though, is not to abandon the effort under the guise of allowing more time to get it right, as the Trump administration has done. It is to work in good faith to devise a more effective approach. Unless and until that kind of effort materializes, it will appear that fighting neighborhood segregation is not really a Trump administration priority at all.
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